Cynical and Touching: A Review of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary

calvary brendon gleeson

Film: Calvary
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Primary Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, M. Emmet Walsh, Domhnall Gleeson, Dylan Moran
U.S. Release Date: 1 August 2014

I live in a not-so-cinematic part of the country, and I don’t have a car so, unfortunately, I watched Calvary online. I probably would have enjoyed it (and paid better attention to it) if I had seen it on the big screen, but oh well. I also watched it a good 4-5 days ago now I really should learn to write reviews sooner, so a few of the details have gone fuzzy. But I’m still pretty sure that I liked it. Quite a lot, actually. Woot.

At times crushingly melancholic and, at others, touching and humorous, Calvary is a powerful and thoroughly entertaining film that will particularly appeal to those who respond well to darker comedy.

The Film
Calvary is the second collaboration between John Michael McDonagh and Brendon Gleeson. Their first film, The Guard, is apparently quite good, but I haven’t seen it. I have, however, seen In Bruges (in which, Gleeson was directed by John Michael’s brother Martin). I love In Bruges. My love for In Bruges led me to Calvary, so here we are. Watching Calvary, I found that there were several moments (particularly the darkly humorous ones) that reminded me of In Bruges. So there’s that.

Calvary follows a week in the life of Father James (Gleeson). Father James is the parish priest of a small Irish village. The film begins with him hearing the confession of an unidentified man. During the confessional, this man talks of how he suffered repeated sexual abuse at the hands of a priest when he was a child. The priest who abused him was never brought to justice, and is now dead. In order to get revenge for his suffering, and to make what he believes will be the most powerful statement possible, this man has decided to kill Father James. Father James is a good man, he is “innocent,” and so, according to the man threatening him, he must die on the following Sunday.

Interestingly, Father James knows who the man who threatened him is (the audience does not), but he never confronts him or goes to the police. Instead, he spends the week living his life, and continues to conduct all his priestly duties. He visits with this suicidal daughter Fiona (Reilly), and he interacts with a motley and rather troubled bunch of locals (which include an adulteress woman, a violent butcher, a dying writer, a local millionaire, the town barman, a grieving widow, a cannibalistic murder, and an atheistic doctor). In many ways, the film is a character study, showing us how Father James acts under the weight being a priest in his community and of the undeserved threat on his life.

And then, Sunday comes.

Some Actual Reviewing
First thing’s first, Gleeson absolutely shines in this film. He is the rock upon which Calvary is built. Father James is not a particularly cheery man, but he is a good man. He is loving. He does his best to be understanding. Still, he is a man. Father James wasn’t always a priest (thus, the daughter). He also struggles with alcohol a bit and seems genuinely burdened by the sins and sorrows of those around him. Father James is devoted to his life as a priest, but he is also world weary. Like the Irish coast all around him, he is constantly buffeted. He is buffeted by the struggles of being a priest in today’s world, by the harsh realities of the world, by the misfortunes of those around him, and by the weight of sins committed long before his day. Gleeson’s portrayal of Father James is fully-realized, touching, and magnetic. There is just something utterly watchable about Gleeson in this film, and (more than once), his performance brought me to tears.

The film’s large supporting cast are relatively solid. Kelly Reilly as the suicidal and sweet Fiona proves the best among them. Undoubtedly, the supporting performances do have a few weak points, but (with the possible exception of Og Lane’s portrayal of the young Michael) most are not so weak as to deserve comment.

Other than Gleeson himself, one of the film’s most obvious strengths is its refreshing and intelligent script; the film’s writing somehow succeeds in blending sentiments as seemingly disparate as scathing irreverence and a certain deep-felt sincerity. Where Calvary is funny, it is darkly, bleakly so. At times, some of the jokes are a tad absurd, at others, the whole might thing gets a little too caught up in itself. Overall, however, this melancholic and engrossing film does a great job of walking the line between entertainment and brooding, and, for all it’s caustic moments, Calvary manages to remain touching. 

Calvary makes no attempts to hide the fact that Father James is a sort of Christ figure. Whether he saves anyone is unclear, but he’s a Christ figure all the same. Father James is told he will die on a nearby beach in a week, and yet, he still shows up to that beach when the time comes. He goes knowing he may meet his end there. Why? Does he hope to atone for the sins of the Catholic Church as Christ is said to have done for mankind? If so, how can he possibly hope to do so? Such questions, Calvary leaves such unanswered, but it does ask viewers to consider what their answers to them might mean.

Calvary is certainly interested in the powers of faith and forgiveness, but it also knows that both have their limitations. The world that Father James lives in is dark. Being a priest is not easy, nor does the occupation necessarily bring him much respect. At one point in the film, Fiona tells her father that Christ’s crucifixion could be interpreted as a suicide. Jesus didn’t have to give himself up, didn’t have to die, but maybe he was just tired of life. Similarly, Father James could skip town or reveal the identity of the man who plans to murder him. But he doesn’t. Is he, like his daughter (and like his daughter’s picture of Christ) suicidal? Perhaps his death would achieve nothing more than his own escape from the sin, the pain, and the darkness around him. Is that so terrible?

Somewhat early in the film, Father James goes to the local Bishop to tell him about the threat he has received. The Bishop asks the Father whether he takes the threat seriously (he has, after all, refrained from going to the police). The Bishop then says, “If you’re not sure [whether the threat is genuine], it means it’s possible.” Coming from a man of the cloth, these words are much more interesting than they may at first seem. After all, it’s much harder to prove with total certainty that God doesn’t exist than to believe that he might. The Bishop wants Father James to take the threat seriously until he knows for sure that he is in no danger. But how can one ever know that for sure? Would the Bishop use similar words to argue in favor of his faith? Does the film mean for the Bishop’s statement to encourage belief, regardless of what happens in Calvary? I’m not sure, but it’s something worth considering. And then, if one is to use the same logic to protect against murder as they are to determine their faith, what does that say about faith? If you watch Calvary, remember the Bishop’s words as the film progresses.

Wrapping Up
Calvary isn’t perfect by any means. It gets a little too didactic and preachy at times and lacks a certain level of subtlety that (in my oh so humble opinion) could have made it really great. In many ways, Calvary is a small film, but it has big aims. And, even though it does not achieve all of those aims, it is most certainly a film worth watching, and I am sure that it is one I will be adding to my personal collection so I can rewatch it at my leisure. Calvary has earned its place among my favorite films of the year so far (the others being The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, A Most Wanted Man, and Boyhood). Despite it’s flaws, there is just something wow much specific about this film that I truly enjoy. It has stuck with me, and I have feeling that is will continue to do so for a long time to come. 

It’s possible that those not fond of wry humor or offended by not-so-favorable-and-happy portrayals of Christianity will not care for Calvary. But who gives a shit about them really? Calvary is cynical, it is wry, but it is by no means heartless. Dark, beautiful, and thought-provoking, Calvary is a strong offering from McDonagh, and I for one look forward to his next.
Get Calvary on (region 2) DVD

Thanks so much for reading. Did you enjoy Calvary? Should I make time to watch The Guard? Feel free to let me know in a comment below.

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