I’ve been meaning to write for a while now but what finally prodded me wasn’t political, cultural, or anything other than what motivated me to write in the first place: a damn good story.
“Calvary” is ferocious and fearless. It made me laugh, cry, think, bite my nails, and ironically pray (the movie’s about a priest) about the fate of some characters. It is the only movie this year that’s made me do that. It’s so easy to forget why you do what you do then something comes along to remind you and for me, this movie was IT.
It’s not too surprising given that the writer and director of this film is John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard”). Storytelling must be in his blood because his brother is Martin McDonagh, a.k.a “Ireland’s most important living playwright” (Beauty Queen of Leehane and Pillowman) and screenwriter of “In Bruges”.
I give nothing away by saying that Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a priest who is threatened with being killed in a week. This is revealed in the first shot. The first sentence hits you over head, the why is heartbreaking, and who is this would-be murderer propels this story into a mystery — and that’s just the first 3 minutes. The priest knows who it is, and it becomes less important to the audience because the crux of the movie starts becoming about the community’s relationship to him.
The other priest (David Wilmot) may be an “ijiot” but he does tell Lavelle to tread lightly, times being what they are and Lavelle ignores this as idealistically humanistic as he is. Lavelle doesn’t realize that whether he likes it or not, he is a symbol of The Catholic Church and that is fraught with landmines.
As I was reading posts about “the dog scene,” I realized the Irish are up in arms about this film because it hits so close to home. McDonagh says he didn’t want this touted as an Irish film but an international one. Yet, he forgets that in writing, specificity alone leads to the universal. Otherwise the story and its lines become general, cliche gobbleydeegook.
“Calvary” is an Irish film to its core because it reflects how the country is reacting to a corrupt institution that had such a tight rein on the people. All of the people’s anger, hatred, or ambivalence about the Church and religion as a whole is directed at this priest (he’s told multiple times “you are a representative of the Church, no?”). As such, though the characters are well-defined, this becomes an allegorical tale or as this commenter wrote:
there is a deliberate clash between the naturalism of Gleeson’s acting and the “acting out” of the other poor lost souls, trying now to find an authentic self now that they have left The Valley of the Squinting Windows. The windows still squint, of course: now the “sinners” squint on their old invigilators, hoping to shock or provoke them. When they fail they turn to spite, ridicule and finally violence. The picture makes it ambiguous as to whether a more authentic Ireland can emerge out of this heap of broken images. (@thejug)
The two mains reasons to see this film: the script and the cast, or more specifically Brendan Gleeson. I don’t know if he’s eligible to win Best Actor this year but if he is, he should win it. The entire movie hinges on his reaction to the threat and to his parish who are using him as a whipping rod for their own issues. He’s spat on, viewed as a sexual predator, and worse while we can only stand by and watch as the life of this priest whom everyone likes (or do they) slowly unfold. Or unravel. Or reveal itself. All of the above.
Those who watch “Game of Thrones” will be pleased to know that Little Finger (Aidan Gillan) is as creepy as a village doctor as he is when he’s a brothel owner making political power moves. It may be that he’s a one-note actor but that one-note reverberates quite soundly. Everyone else who are known actors are nothing like you’ve seen them before.
Chris O’Dowd, who I first saw and loved in “The IT Crowd,” has continuously sought to expand any perception of him as only a comedian with his turn in “Girls” and here he’s just kicked aside all preconceived notions. I still think he would shine the brightest as a Robin Williams-type of role: warm, funny, deep. He may be an asshole in real life but he emanates warmth and soulfulness so go with it, Chris!
Dylan Moran was also drunk misanthrope in this as in his hit series “Black Book” but a markedly dark and wealthy drunk. Even Domnhall Gleeson (Brendan’s son! And Ron’s older brother in the Harry Potter movies), who was so charming in “About Time” (still a rainy day romance go-to) has one scene but it’s a slamdunk.
I have a bias towards this movie in that the script reads like a play, which in my book is a plus. Favorite lines include “She’s bipolar…or lactose intolerant”; “seems to me we need to concentrate on virtues more than sins these days.”
My weepiest scene didn’t include the dog scene, which left me mortified, but a whole monologue by Little Finger, I mean Gillan, that hit on one of my biggest nightmares. He meant to scare — or did he? Was he also so moved by it, which is what moved me or was it just a horrific story? That’s the beauty of the writing and the actor: you don’t know.
And the last scene. No dialogue or explanation was needed thanks to the brilliance of Kelly Reilly’s and the other actor’s performances (no spoilers here!) and the flow of the script leading up to that point.
My other bias towards it is that I was a religion (and dance) major and anything with this title inevitably means some reflection on religious and ethical views will be happening(Calvary is another name for Golgotha, where Jesus Christ was crucified). I’m tired of white people’s problems. I know I have the same ones and I know divorce and dating sucks. Not that all suffering isn’t suffering at its core but personally, I need to feel more and see more. So this movie had a lot of white people, but it was about something more than just a shitty dating life.
I also have a bias towards films that convey a full sense of life. I’m not a fan of navel gazing. No one lives in isolation. We have consequences for how we act in a community. We have families, whether estranged or not, that we react to. The authenticity of this film came from the skillful interweaving of lives, which, for me, IS life.
Finally, I love that this movie has humor unlike some other indie/foreign/Oscar-type movies I’ve seen lately. But what many of these movies lacked, as many “important” films and TV shows forget (ahem, “True Detective,” cough cough), just as “literary” novels often forget is a sense of humor.
People have an overwhelming need to hang onto normalcy at any cost and they they do so through continuing with laughter and rites of passages war and genocide be damned. It may be gallows humor, but humor isn’t less than weightier emotions that “deep” stories seek to reflect.
I relate to stories without some humor or wit like I do to people without a good sense of humor, especially about themselves. Sure, I’ll grab a drink with them, pass a few hours, they may even become a friend but they will never be one of my best buds. “Calvary” not only grasped that tightrope of balancing humor and pathos but owned it without melodrama or sentimentality. It became one of my best buds.
(Side Note: adult stories with murder and mayhem are more bearable to my heart than animated stories like “Madagascar 2” which I’ve been watching with my sick child where parents and children, yet again in yet another animation, are separated. I’d rather watch nihilism set in.)