Calvary- the latest movie from Irish director John Michael McDonagh is a whodunit with a twist; a social and theological conscience that delves deep into its characters souls and lets us come up with our own conclusions. Laced with the trademark McDonagh’s gallows humour and unapologetic graphic approach Calvary is one of the year’s most intriguing spectacles.
In the darkness of the confession box Brendan Gleeson’s Father James is told by an anonymous figure that he is going to be murdered on the following Sunday. Down on the beach he will be executed; a good priest taking the fall for all the sexual abuse and torment that his church has tormented young boys with over the previous decades.
Like his brother Martin, the director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, John Michael McDonagh has an ear for language, and Calvary is perhaps his most unapologetic yet. Starting with one of the most startling opening lines in movie history; the movie then tackles issues like suicide, the recession, life, death and of course religion with precision and wit.
It is these issues and the existential crisis of Father James that are the beating heart of this movie. In Father James we have a representative of the church, a man who will be crucified for the sins of others; but he is not the kind of Christ we are used to. He is a flawed man- a man with his own demons to wrestle- a Christ we can all relate to.
Then of course there is the mystery that holds the plot together. Father James lives in a small town on the Irish coast. It soon becomes clear that like the Father himself most of the residents have their own demons they must wrestle with. Whether it be the town mistress (Brennan) her neglected husband, the town butcher- Jack (Chris O Dowd) the aged writer contemplating suicide (M. Emmett Walsh) the atheistic doctor (Aidan Gillen) his own neglected daughter (Kelly Reilly) or the narcissistic philanthropist divorcee (Dylan Moran).
With such a wide array of characters the film could have easily felt contrived but the script handles it so well that it feels perfectly natural. Even when Brendan’s real life son Domhall Gleeson (About Time) shows up as a former pupil in prison for murdering innocent girls the script holds itself together well and each actor is given their own little scenes in which they can deliver. But make no mistake this film belongs to Gleeson, who has never been better, and that’s quite the statement to be making.
Gleeson’s character embodies religion in modern day society- worn down, with old ideals that no longer quite fit, as we see in a scene where a bar owner asks him why he never prays for people suffering because of the economic climate. He becomes a sacrificial lamb for the sins of his peers. The title of the movie, Calvary, hangs over the film, creating an impending sense of doom. Named after the hill on which Jesus was crucified James’ own Calvary is to be his local beach, early on a Sunday morning and the movie counts down the days for us, as we slowly see the Father come to terms with his fate.
On a technical level the movie is also a marvel. Beautiful cinematography, along with some of the best editing in recent memory makes it a feast for the eyes that also moves along at the perfect pace, whilst a beautiful and at times ominous score only adds to the movie’s atmosphere.
Verdict: In the same month which saw the release of Darren Aronofsky’s bloated and preposterous Noah, John Michael McDonagh has shown us just how great a movie based around religion can be. A modern day parable Calvary provides an honest look into the nature of religion in a world where it no longer appears to know its place.
Anchored by a phenomenal central performance from Gleeson with some excellent supporting work Calvary is one of the year’s best movies so far.