Director: John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran and Aiden Gillen
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: April 11th
Calvary begins on just about the tensest opening scene in film history. Claustrophobically boxed into a confessional, an intrusive close-up lingers on Father James Lavelle as he’s told courtly and chillingly that he’ll be murdered in seven days time. He takes it rather well, all things considered, spending the next week not calling the police but interacting with townsfolk and getting his house in order.
John Michael McDonagh frames his story around a central mystery but then largely ignores it. Similar to David Lynch’s approach to Laura Palmer’s murder in Twin Peaks, he’s more interested in exploring the many idiosyncratic inhabitants of the small country town — from a 10-year-old who dabble in water colours to an atheist nurse, New York accented male prostitute and hormonal eunuch — and their confrontations with each other. Characters share the flavour for high articulation that exists in John Michael and his brother Martin’s movies; exploring themes of death, substance dependency, adultery and self-abuse. (There’s even a brief moment that alludes to the possible existence of a McDonagh-verse.)
At first glance Calvary looks a movie that might elicit uproar from the Catholic Church but on closer examination, that umbrage might soon abate into light support. And that’s largely down to Brendan Gleeson. He carries the movie as graciously as his character lugs the great burden of sin of all he meets. Warm, kind and gentle; he’s everything you expect not to see of a fictional clergy member in this day and age. Child abuse is certainly addressed, both as a plot catalyst and in a moment that crushes both you and Lavelle when handled by Gleeson.
If there’s a fault in Calvary, it’s that Gleeson’s performance and character are so strong and well rounded that the rest of the cast pale in comparison. They also collectively play some exceptionally awful people — Gomorrah reborn on the west coast of Ireland. Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd work best within their roles; the former an ostentatious, self-loathing banker, the latter a potentially wife-beating butcher. Of the bad, Gleeson’s son, Domhnall, shares a scene with his father that sits awkwardly in the narrative. And then there’s Aiden Gillen, whose Carcetti credit has surely run out by now. His performance is ridiculously crass, like bad performance art that only he’s in on.
McDonagh’s film is billed as a black comedy, but if this is black, then all before it were just very, very, very, very, very dark blue. An uneasy sense of dread clouds the movie and seldom leaves. Light moments fleet in and out; Lavelle’s moments with his troubled daughter (Kelly Reilly, airdropped from the set of Flight) have warmth and humour over the general melancholia. Entering with expectations of The Guard 2.0 will leave you shocked, perhaps even miffed; open-mindedness will reveal another important piece in an exciting time for Irish cinema.