It seems like I’m going to be distinctly in the minority when it comes to this one. I was a big fan of John Michael McDonagh‘s directorial debut The Guard, so I was definitely looking forward to this sophomore outing. While I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like Calvary, it’s about as different from McDonagh’s prior film as you can get, and perhaps I was just expecting something different? For whatever reason, I seem to be one of the few who was underwhelmed by this movie. Granted, I’m with my colleagues on the fact that Brendan Gleeson is as good as he ever has been in the lead role, essaying a character that’s complex and actually quite poetic, despite the dark material. Likewise, McDonagh’s direction is very solid, including some rather beautiful shots that he and DP Larry Smith have composed. It’s just the screenplay attempts something more profound than what actually is accomplished, leaving just the sense of fatalism that runs throughout the narrative and little else. There’s a lot of talk about faith and such here, but it all added up to very little for me. I kept waiting for that moment where I’d be fully invested, but it never quite happened. I really wanted to be able to recommend this one to you all, and Calvary is probably the highest of the two and a half star films this year for me, but it’s still more of a mixed bag than it should be. Alas.
Despite some humor, this is a weighty story (seriously think about what the title is referring to). Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) is a good priest in a small Irish village. He’s smart, humorous, and cares about his flock. He almost functions as a sort of peacekeeper in the community, shown in a scene where he begins to investigate who beat one of the women in the town, a supposedly lose woman named Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke). Was it her butcher husband Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd)? One of her lovers? Someone more sinister? James cares, to the point where it goes beyond faith. He wants these people to be happy. That’s his life, at least until the morning where he receives the confession of someone who was abused by a priest as a child. The confessor is angry and wants a measure of vengeance. Instead of killing that bad priest, which wouldn’t have a point apparently, the confessor has decided to kill a good priest…namely James. He’s going to murder him in one week, which basically starts a countdown in James’ head. He begins speaking to the residents of the town, trying to figure out who the mysterious person is, while also learning just how deeply unhappy and mostly faithless they are. At the same time though, James appears almost resigned to his fate, despite having a daughter named Fiona (Kelly Reilly) that he’s trying to maintain a relationship with. I won’t spoil what happens, but the fatalism apparent in especially the third act was a little much for me, I must say.
If the story gave me some degree of pause, Brendan Gleeson’s performance made me want to stand up and cheer. He brings so much to this already loaded character, and it’s critical that he does so too. Many of the scenes are just repetitive conversations about faith and life with different types of people, so Gleeson is very much the glue that bonds everything together. He’s magnificent, but not in the sort of showy way that you can easily describe. It’s probably too subtle work to gain awards traction, but he’s good enough to deserve an award from someone. The supporting cast is fine, but aside from Chris O’Dowd getting to do more of a dramatic role than usual, no one really gets too much to do. Kelly Reilly especially is a bit wasted to me. There’s a decent supporting turn from M. Emmet Walsh as an elderly American resident, but that’s about it. The likes of Isaach De Bankolé, Aidan Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan’s son, yes), Dylan Moran, and the aforementioned O’Rourke are solid enough, but they don’t hold a candle to Gleeson, plain and simple.
I hate comparing McDonagh’s work here to his work on The Guard (or even his brother Martin McDonagh‘s films In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths), but I can’t help having this minority opinion that Calvary is the weakest movie of the lot. The flick is very nice to look at, as mentioned above, but the script goes in circles, taking its time to make a simple point. I can see where it has value, but something like Philomena happened to make similar points at times in a lighter way. I’m not against heavy themes, but it seems to weight this film down. You sort of know where things are going and just sit around and wait for it to happen. Perhaps I was expecting something else, but I just wanted more than previously made points about the damage morally corrupt priests can do to human lives and religious fatalism. McDonagh also draws his supporting characters a little too broadly, so you look at them more as oddball suspects than anything else. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s noticeable…to me, at least.
I’m sure that when many of you see Calvary, you’ll think I’m nuts for not being head over heels in love with it. I certainly loved Gleeson’s performance and really came close to going three stars here, but my issues haven’t subsided in the few days since I saw it. I’m almost mad at myself for not liking it better, but I have to listen to my heart here. Calvary is worth seeing, but I have enough of a problem with it that it won’t have my overt recommendation here. I certainly won’t stop you, and in fact sort of want a lot of people to see it so a discussion can be had, but consider me just a bit on the disappointed side.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!