After he is threatened during a confession, a good-natured priest must battle the dark forces closing in around him.
John Michael McDonagh released his debut feature film, ‘The Guard’ in 2011 to great critical acclaim, and in my opinion he’s gone one better with his follow up, ‘Calvary’, a more thoughtful and spiritual effort that still shares the black comedic qualities of his debut. The key link between these two films (and his brother Martin’s excellent ‘In Bruges’) is the superb Brendan Gleeson, who arguably puts in his finest performance to date as Father James Lavelle, the protagonist. Interviews with McDonagh and Gleeson have shown that they wanted to make a film about a good priest, at a time when most films focused on the clergy were based on some of the more unsavoury aspects of catholicism, and ‘Calvary’ was born. We begin in the confession booth, where a man (known to Lavelle, but not to the audience) threatens to kill him in one week’s time for the sins of his religion, and of his fellow priests – the reason he has chosen Lavelle, is because he is a good man, and the impact of his death would reverberate more than that of another ‘paedophile priest’.
That mystery informs the thrust of the story, but its not the key to the story. It acts as an impetus for Lavelle to reconsider his life, his faith and what everything means, as he’s surrounded by potential killers in amongst the spiteful inhabitants of his small country town. That brings me on to the other key strength of the film, which is in its supporting cast. Featuring Aiden Gillen, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, M Emmet Walsh and Isaach De Bankole amongst others, these characters are all quirky and interesting in their own ways, and their interactions with Lavelle are both key to the central mystery, and key to Lavelle’s journey over the course of the week. I won’t spoil the final outcome but needless to say the person that plays the would-be killer shows depth in their performance that I wasn’t sure they were capable off, with the ultimate breakdown both tragic and powerful.
The film does start slowly, and it takes a bit of time for the narrative thrust to really start driving things forward as we start to approach the presumed death date. Perhaps this was the point, as it increases the tension in Gleeson’s performance as we can gradually feel his faith in humanity dissolve, as the noose starts to slowly tighten round his neck. Gleeson is a force of nature in his performance – he’s always been a sensational character actor, but this new lease of life in leading roles under the 2 McDonagh brothers have really allowed him to show off his talent, and Father James Lavelle is his best creation yet. The film is every bit as funny as ‘The Guard’ was, but with a much more powerful dramatic thrust that underpins its black comedy origins. The story gains power as we approach the Sunday one week after we started, and the conclusion is both deeply thought provoking and powerful. This is an outstanding piece of work, and I can’t wait to see what these 2 can come up with next.
Directed By: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Aiden Gillen, Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Kelly Reilly, Isaach De Bankole, M. Emmet Walsh, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot, Pat Shortt and Killian Scott