I was instantly won over by both the McDonagh brothers’ film debuts, Michael’s In Bruges and John Martin’s The Guard. Michael McDonagh’s follow-up Seven Psychopaths proved to be a playful, self-aware dissection on screenwriting and Hollywood mores, much less immersive emotionally but winningly tricksy in structure and character. John Martin’s sophomore film, Calvary, is on the face of it a more straightforward affair than his sibling’s; seven days in the life of a Roman Catholic priest who has been told at confessional he is to die in a week’s time. As such it seems more instantly comparable to In Bruges, a tragedy shot through with trademark black humour, with a genuine and affecting central performance. But there may almost be too much going on under the lid, and there’s a feeling that McDonagh has dropped a couple of balls along the way.
In confessional a man, whose voice he recognises, tells Father James (Brendan Gleeson) of his repeated rape by a former, now deceased, priest over a period of five years from the age of seven. He warns the Father that he intends to kill him in one week’s time, because “There’s no point in killing a bad priest, but killing a good one. That would be a shock. They wouldn’t know what to make of that”. While the father speaks to his bishop, he chooses not to report the incident to the authorities and goes on about his duties. His daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) is visiting, recovering from a suicide attempt, and their philosophical discussions about faith and vocation are played out as a contrast to his interactions with the local townsfolk, whose reactions to him ranges from outright contempt for what he represents to (at best) acceptance of the nonsense he spouts. So his possibly final week on Earth comes under the fiercest scrutiny and testing. Does he have the courage of his convictions, or should he just accept that general avalanche of opinion that “Your time has gone. You don’t even realise it”?
There are multiple layers to Calvary. As I’ve intimated, possibly too many to fully satisfy. But it frequently comes close; I don’t think McDonagh nails the tone of the piece with the deceptive sureness that marked out the previous three pictures from these brothers. In particular it suffers set against In Bruges, because at times it is in danger of becoming didactic in what it wants to raise for discussion at any given point. This discussion is clearly intentional, but there’s a lack of finesse.
McDonagh comes from a contrary starting point; in a world where the priesthood is reputationally in tatters, how about presenting a good priest; one who must suffer the brickbats for all those who committed terrible sins shrouded in the shield of the cloth. But, being McDonagh, this was never going to be an austere affair. The opening quote may be on the portentous side, St Augustine’s “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned” but it effectively highlights in question marks those who surround our Christ figure’s journey. It is a thief (the altar boy) who rushes to the stricken Father when his side is pierced by a bullet.
Father James also has a sympathetic ear from his daughter, and the grieving widow Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) who proves the most (only) resilient source of faith in the picture, but largely he is on the receiving end of a steady stream of blame and contempt for his position. We don’t have to be told he’s a good guy; the confessor whom we later discover is local butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd) explicitly states he will kill him because he’s “done nothing wrong”, because he’s “innocent”. Like Jesus he is the sacrificial lamb, but, instead of atoning for the sins of mankind, he is martyring himself for the shames of the Roman Catholic Church. And, as is necessary in such an allegorical journey, there are temptations from the path along the way. This thematic level is solid in conception and in the main unintrusively referenced; it’s there for all to see, but Gleeson’s beautifully pitched, sensitive performance hides the less subtle aspects beneath his robe. Many would be unable to segue from the apparent insensitivity of his initial response to the abuse victim’s revelation, to his fumbling attempts to help the man, to his blackly stoic response to whether he has anything to say in response to being told he will die soon; “Not right now, no. But I’m sure I’ll think of something by Sunday week”.
Likewise, his relationship with his daughter is touching, a deliberate mixture of self-awareness and understanding (“You’re supposed to cut down not across” he greets the bandaged Fiona). It’s with this that McDonagh keeps the serious contemplation in focus, so the picture doesn’t merely become a series of eccentric folk bouncing caustic remarks off the resilient priest. Father James makes no pretence at sainthood and, as a man with a married life preceding his religious vows, he has worldly experience and brushes with alcoholism to draw on as genuine insight into his parishioners. He doesn’t fall on the spiritual indolence of his co-priest Father Leary (David Wilmot, as a less beneficent version of Father Dougal holy fool) whom he accuses of lacking integrity and being fundamentally unsuited to their vocation, but nor does he pretend to have answers when he doesn’t. On several occasions he is caught struggling, unable to offer empty words in place of simply not knowing (such as in the opening confessional, and later on the beach). He cannot justify his lack of compassion, such that he did not shed tears for all the abused altar boys yet wept for the loss of his dog, and to Jack it’s the clincher for why he is justified in his lethal act.
McDonagh thoroughly succeeds with Father James; at no point do we lose our respect for him. He is forthright with the charlatans (killer Freddie Joyce, played by Gleeson’s son Domhnall, Dylan Moran’s rich cynic Michael) and over what he does know (his view of the reasons anyone who would join the army in peace time). Freddie represents the limits of his capacity to see forgiveness; “I think if God can’t understand you, Freddie, no one can” but perhaps his daughter is able to see a little more. Like Christ, James’ faith is tested. When the tirades become too much, and his dog has been killed, he turns to the bottle and gets a beating with a baseball bat for his pains. He considers both leaving the town and using a gun in self-defence, the morality of which have been prefigured by earlier conversations. He gently berates his daughter for her suicide attempt, but is effectively leaving her by keeping his date on the beach. Yet this comes down to the higher calling he feels, the vocation that caused him to “leave” her in the first instance. One might argue he has a responsibility to have Jack apprehended, to prevent him from committing the act that will further scar his life, although that might not fit so neatly with McDonagh’s design.
Certainly, Father James considers then discards the option for killing in self-defence, something he has earlier debated with Milo (Killian Scott); for the Father, it proves not to be an option in the final reckoning. When his resilience is at a low ebb, having seemingly lost everything (he cannot even have a conversation with a little girl without her father instantly assuming his motives are indecent), it is the meeting at the airport with Teresa that rekindles his failing resolve. Earlier she, of all those who could justifiably impugn the existence of a benevolent God, explains that she does not see what happened to her husband as unfair. It is “just what happened”. She further expands on this, saying that what’s unfair is “Many don’t live good lives, don’t feel love”. During this scene, Father James identifies the reason many profess belief as “the fear of death, nothing more than that”. Arguably, as noted, he might claim surviving is about providing her daughter with a father but he sees it as yielding to that lesser instinct; he needs to be better than that, to embody what he represents. When he steps onto the beach it is with peace of mind; “I’ve already said them” he tells Jack when he is instructed to say his prayers.
And his sacrifice is not in vain. The coda finds Fiona visiting a surprised Jack in prison. We might logically expect a downward spiral from the daughter who tried to end it all, but McDonagh is intently trying to say that striving for virtue is not purposeless. It’s not all as hopeless as the motley crew in the town might suggest. Fiona manifests her father’s words “I think there’s too much talk about sins, to be honest, and not enough talk about virtues”.
The townsfolk provide walking talking hang-ups over the Church, which can occasionally prove overpowering. There’s Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), the scarlet woman flagrantly engaged in adultery with Simon (Isaach de Bankole), about which her cuckolded husband Jack attests not to care. She continually baits and teases Father James (“You know, that’s what I’ve always liked about you father. You’re a little too sharp for this parish”), as does landlord Brendan (Pat Short), invoking the spectre of the financial crisis when he announces the bank foreclosing on him. Like everyone else he accuses the Father of holding a party line, which we can see is most certainly something James does not do. But his lack of finger wagging at banks suggests complicity to Brendan. After all, the Church is guilty of “screwing the Jews out of their money and collaborating with the Nazis”. James’s shot back about Brendan making use of his library card stumbles when Brendan tells him the library too is closing due to cutbacks. None of which justifies the measures Brendan takes on James’ dog (even after which he still believes he needs “taking down a peg or two”).
Moran’s rich-by-duplicitous-means millionaire Michael is also in financial straits, and takes a very similar view to the landlord (“It’ll be a black day when the Catholic Church is not interested in money”), and McDonagh’s view seems clear (“People like you have pissed on everything else. Why not that too” James observes of the urine doused painting). Michael mocks his own philanthropy as “the expiation of guilt” is in the nature of all philanthropy but reaches some sort of breakthrough in his final encounter with James (never to be concluded, however).
Others we meet include a police inspector (Gary Lyndon) who takes bribes and killed a man once in the Wicklow Mountains (“He was just pissing me off”). He is content to show protracted disrespect towards the Father rather than outright abuse, as the overt come-ons of male prostitute Leo (Owen Sharpe) underline (the latter is provided as a red herring, with a fake movie accent and referencing to historic abuse). Milo’s presence is partly gauged to have a go at the military (the film is also keen to have its passing say about casual racism and bigotry); “But I would assume wanting to murder someone would be like having a degree in engineering or something. It would outweigh all my lack of qualities”. McDonagh also overtly equates being in the military with suicide on the scale of terrible things; “Those are pretty drastic choices”.
Aiden Gillen’s Frank is a dyspeptic, snarling caricature twisting the knife in at the Father’s precepts at every opportunity. But as we have seen, it is intentional that few of the characters here have flesh. They are symbols and devices, which ultimately may dent the film’s wholer impact. Frank’s vitriol culminates in a tale of a child rendered deaf, dumb, blind and paralysed in a botched operation. He expresses disdain for any notion that a God could oversee such a world where a child is “entombed within your own body, howling with terror”, gleefully provoking the father (“Why would you tell me a story like that?” replies James, incensed).
Less overt is M Emmet Walsh’s writer, whom James has a civil, friendly relationship. The Father even seems willing to fetch him a gun with which to do himself away. The writer’s dismissiveness of James beliefs is borderline affectionate (“What have you ever done to me, except talk garbage?”) and of course the writer was also a key character in Seven Psychopaths. Here he delivers lines such as “My whole life has been an affectation” to the response, “Sounds witty, doesn’t actually make any sense”). Then there are the fellow clergy, neither of whom is remotely effective. The bishop attempts to profile the confessor with a load of nonsense (“I think you read that in a book, your excellency”).
While I don’t think the device of the larger-than-life caricatures is necessarily a problem, it does have a negative impact in certain respects. O’Dowd’s reveal underwhelms as he lacks the gravitas to play such a part (or maybe I’m just caught by the baggage he brings to any role now). Indeed, it’s telling to discover he did not play the voice over in the confessional booth in the first scene, as I found it difficult to connect the steel and menace there with the gawky comedy actor attempting a serious turn at the end. It’s no reflection on O’Dowd in his milieu; he’s very funny (as is Dylan Moran, who would have been no better suited); only Gillan or Sharpe could have successfully risen to the challenge.
And, if that’s part of McDonagh’s tactics, so meta- is he throughout in foregrounding the thematic and structural aspects of his journey to the Cross, I think he tries to be a little too clever. For the most part, his screenplay doesn’t come across as too schematic, even if the shopping list of legitimate grievances against the Church does at points. Having a comedy actor as an abuse victim might be just the sort of rug pulling “look at this” McDonagh is aiming for, or it might be plain miscasting. Either way, it undercuts the execution (ahem) of the final scene, though its thematic strengths remain sturdy.
The meta-ness of Calvary doesn’t reach the loopiness of brother Martin’s Seven Psychopaths, but one does wonder if this isn’t a case of the playwright too confident of playing his puppets on the stage. Since this is, overall, a serious meditation – but shot through with irresistible black humour – the more arch it is the less resonant it becomes. The line-up of village caricatures/possible suspects is Agatha Christie meets Father Ted, and overlaid are references to the fiction itself; “Certainly a startling opening line” responds Father James to the “confession” that is the film’s first line. Frank informs Father James that he is “the atheistic doctor” character and so doesn’t get all the best lines.
When Father James asks, “Why didn’t anybody see?” on the being told the church is enveloped with flames the answer is that no one ever does in such fictions. And the Father has to drop in on a cannibalistic serial killer who used to live in the town. Of course, he does, if you’re going to have a conversation about the limits of faith and forgiveness a serial killer is going to be pretty much the worst (that or a banker). And then there’s Father James critique of his own response to his daughter’s “I lost two parents for the price of one”; “I’ll always be here and you’ll always be here” as a corny; “third act revelation”. “Corny, but I like it,” replies Fiona, covering all bases of audience reaction (notably the revelation is in fact that he does not say that he will always be there for her, because he is on his march to death).
It’s been suggested the characters are intentionally re-enacting the Seven Stations of the Cross, although other impulses may have fed into McDonagh’s thinking. Certainly, some of the analogous roles bear this out (the Inspector as Herod, Frank as Satan, the Writer as Peter, most particularly Jack as Judas; “I thought you were a friend of mine” says James). Gleeson has talked about how McDonagh attempted to base it on this, before re-formatting it in mind of the Five Stages of Grief (others have seen the Seven Deadly Sins and The Ten Commandments in there, and they probably are), and I think that kind of prescriptiveness ultimately prevents it from being as tragically effective as In Bruges. That said, it’s still a picture of many riches “Everything has to mean something, or what’s the point” splutters Moran before self-reflexively pissing on his painting; Calvary might have a little too much meaning, such that James simple explanation for disencumbering all the unnecessary rules of the Church (“Everybody’s happy. Where’s the harm in that?”) is rather trampled in the stampede of ideas.
Visually this is as bracing and unspoilt as The Guard (Larry Smith lensed both), which was less impressed with its own thematic weight and so avoided becoming Calvary’s potential mire. Patrick Cassidy’s score bears that burden perhaps too overtly, although without it we might be prone to under-recognise the fine tonal line that McDonagh teeters upon. Gleeson and McDonagh will next be teetering together in The Lame Shall Enter First, which sounds like Ironside in South London. It’s the third part of his “Glorified Suicide Trilogy” (although I’d dispute that there’s anything so definite about The Guard’s ending). As a one-line premise, it sounds like it may carry itself a little more deftly. Calvary is one of the best films of the year so far; it’s just that with both McDonaghs we’ve already been spoilt with better.