Film Review: Calvary

An invidious, enervating piece of work blessedly relieved by Brendan Gleeson’s empathetic portrayal of a worldly priest confronting the sins of the world.

John Michael McDonagh’s screenwriting debut, Ned Kelly, garnered respectable ratings on the Tomatometer and his directorial debut, The Guard, earned an estimable 95% fresh response from critics. Ned Kelly deserves more love, and The Guard maybe less, but a tip o’ the cap to McDonagh, whose younger brother, Martin, hogs the spotlight with his fashionably violent and darkly comic plays and movies (The Cripple of Inishmaan, In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths).
Perhaps John Michael, emboldened by his good press, felt compelled to outdo his sibling, for his new film, Calvary, is so unrelentingly cynical as to be mean-spirited, the humor so black it sucks the energy out of the audience. It would be pretty to believe McDonagh made this film because he sought retribution for the sins of his Catholic fathers, that he attempted to expiate painful wrongs by creating a sympathetic believer who ironically suffers the misdirected vengeance of victims he only wants to save. Calvary, however, offers no redemption or even catharsis—at best, some talk of forgiveness—and McDonagh’s crude drollery, if that’s the word for it, feels forced, fake, as though anger is acceptable if delivered with a punch line.

The film opens with Father James (Brendan Gleeson) hearing the confession of a parishioner who patiently, and graphically, explains that for years as a child he was abused by a priest, now dead. The man proposes an Old Testament form of justice. “I’m going to kill you, Father, because you’re innocent.” He gives the priest one week to get his affairs in order.

Father James spends the time tending to his flock, a motley crew even for rural Sligo, and to his distraught daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who recently attempted suicide. (The running joke, typical of McDonagh’s brand of humor here, is that she made the “classic mistake,” slashing across her wrists, not down.) Father James, obviously, was married before taking his vows and, typical of McDonagh’s approach to character, he had to overcome demons, namely his addiction to alcohol and subsequent neglect of his family, before donning the soutane. Unfortunately for Father James, his congregation isn’t as keen on the possibilities of grace presented by Catholicism. They are an embittered, hedonistic lot, and they despise Father James for his faith almost as much as they despise themselves for their lack of it.

Calvary, we soon understand, is meant to be a modern morality tale, the villagers representing various deadly sins: Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), the restless housewife, given over to lust; Michael (Dylan Moran), the mendacious financier, the personification of gluttony; Brenden (Pat Shortt), the pub owner, distorted by envy and avarice. McDonagh isn’t attempting an exact allegory. He includes in his isle purgatory an aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh), also suicidal, guilty of despair; a corrupt police inspector (Gary Lydon) with a fancy for male prostitutes; and a self-loathing physician (Aidan Gillen) who uses bloody autopsy samples for an ashtray, a gesture indicative of his pride or his wrath, take your pick. One thing is for sure: There’s not a likeable or sympathetic figure among them.

Brendan Gleeson, who has appeared in a number of the Brother McDonaghs’ past films, bears the weight of Calvary, with a little help from the appealing Kelly Reilly and everybody’s favorite Irishman, Chris O’Dowd (as Jack Brennan, the local butcher…wink wink). The large supporting cast includes Marie-Josée Croze, Isaach De Bankolé, David Wilmot, Owen Sharpe, David McSavage, and a cameo by Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s eldest son (who played Levin in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina and Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter series). They do what they can with their roles in this sardonic parable, but the movie is all about McDonagh and his rage against the Church, or against life itself. Theatres showing the film would do well to put Dante’s warning on their marquees: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

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