‘Calvary’ a Cross to Bear

Writer and director John Michael McDonagh’s debut film, “The Guard”, was highly revered for its smart writing, humor and surprising heart.

With his second film, “Calvary”, things take a turn for the dark.

“I first tasted semen when I was seven years old,” are the opening lines of the film, uttered by an unseen man in a confessional to the shock and horror of the protagonist, Father James (Brendan Gleeson).

The man goes on to describe the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest as a child. He then declares that he will take his revenge by killing Father James in a week’s time, because it would cause more of a controversy within the Catholic Church for a “good priest” to be murdered.

Father James does not go to the authorities, and shares this threat on his life with only one other person, a Bishop.

Instead of trying to figure out who the confessor is, he turns his attention instead to the other parishioners of his church and the other inhabitants of his small, sleepy seaside Irish town.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

A kooky group that includes a butcher (Chris O’Dowd), his unfaithful wife (Orla O’Rourke), her lover (Isaach de Bankole), an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) and a lonely, out-of-touch millionaire (Dylan Moran), Father James tries his best to offer frank guidance amongst their antics, which falls entirely on deaf ears.

In addition, Father James’ daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) is visiting from London, in search of respite after a romantic relationship gone horribly awry.

Films focusing on religion can veer on overbearing, because of both the content and the intended result—an earnest attempt to make an indelible impression on the viewer often leads to the movie trying too hard.

Because “Calvary” focuses intensely on the characters of the film instead of abstract theory and the ambiguous, the film is able to deliver heavy content without being suffocating.

While it has its comedic moments, “Calvary” is certainly not a fun ride—the characters Father James tries to look after steadily turn from condescending to outright spiteful and violent.

In addition, as the countdown to the killer’s deadline nears, Father James himself begins to slowly lose grip on the institution he spent the better part of his life attempting to uphold.

Instead of being a sneering commentary on those who either lack faith or put too much energy into it, the film can be seen more as a case study on redemption, justice, pain, sin and community.

Brendan Gleeson’s performance as Father James is without a doubt the cornerstone of the film. Sardonic, sharp, dry and genuinely invested in the betterment of the townspeople, his seemingly serene acceptance of the killer’s threat can be paralleled to Christ’s acknowledgement of His impending crucifixion.

Atmospheric, sweeping shots of beautiful Irish scenery and a haunting score composed by Patrick Cassidy further enhance the film’s bleak, melancholy beauty.

Visually lush and dense with grimness and smart writing, “Calvary” will without a doubt lend itself to insightful conversation long after the lights turn back on.

ONLY RECOMMENDED IF: You’re not looking for something light or uplifting. While McDonagh’s trademark black humor makes appearances throughout the film, the subject matter is dark and can be draining.