REVIEW: “Calvary”

Calvary poster

The opening scene in “Calvary” wastes no time conveying the tone of the film – bleak, cynical, and disturbing yet with an odd touch of subtle dark humor. The scene opens with a shot of Father James in a confessional. The camera never leaves his face. He is listening to a parishioner talk about the horrible sexual abuse he experienced as a child at the hands of a now deceased priest. He says he is going to kill Father James in one week because killing a “good priest” would be a much bigger shock to the Catholic Church. The scene ends.

This brilliantly unsettling opening sets the framework for writer and director John Michael McDonagh’s stinging Irish drama. The story moves through what may or may not be Father James’ final week on earth. He spends the time going about his normal work in his Irish coastal town – tending to the church and tending to his flippantly immoral and ungrateful flock. We also see him getting a few personal things in order, you know, just in case.

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Father James is played by Brendan Gleeson, an actor so naturally gifted and perfectly cast. Father James is an earnest and faithful man of the cloth. He is a man of integrity which allows him a degree of respect from the community. But at the same time that same virtue and integrity is what they hate about him. It clashes with their shameful and unrepentant lives. His encounters and conversations with these people make up the bulk of the story.

One by one we meet these townsfolk each with their own level of vileness. A fantastic supporting cast flesh out these heathens and ingrates. Chris O’Dowd plays a local butcher and abusive husband. His wife (Ola O’Rourke) is no saint. She shamelessly flaunts her affairs, her latest being with a cocky Ivorian (Isaach de Bankolé). Aidan Gillen plays a disgustingly calloused athiest doctor and Dylan Moran plays a lonely, pompous, and self-absorbed millionaire.

There are a handful of other characters that round out this motley crew of miscreants. All of them view Father James as a walking joke – a punching bag for their cruel and merciless ridicule and mockery. These are really bad human beings and we begin to wonder how much Father James can take. He truly is a good man (McDonagh stated he wanted to make a film about a good priest). We often see him bewildered by the gall of these people and it feels as if he wears down a bit more with each encounter.

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Thankfully there are a few small rays of light among the downers. Father James has the opportunity to reconnect with his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). The two haven’t been close since her mother died several years earlier. Repairing the fractured relationship would feel a void in both of their lives. For James moments with Fiona are like a refuge and an escape. In a way it is for us too. These scenes give us (the audience) a slight break from the ugliness.

And then there is the mystery of who wants to kill Father James. Is it one of the people he encounters throughout the final week he is given to live? In a clever narrative maneuver McDonagh makes it clear that James knows who has threatened him. But we do not. So we also watch these encounters and conversations with a slight deductive eye. This isn’t the main focus of the story yet it’s a fun and crafty way to engage the audience even more.

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“Calvary” is indeed a movie of conversations, one right after another. This could make some a little wary but it shouldn’t. McDonagh’s writing is just so good and each conversation seems important to the story and full of meaning. There is also some gorgeous imagery in the form of landscapes, ocean views, and green-coated mountains. It’s magnificent to see but it also serves as a sharp reoccurring contrast between the beauty of the scenery and the ugliness of the people living there. McDonagh offers several creative touches like this which douses his film with grit and energy.

And it all comes back to Gleeson, the veritable linchpin of this layered but slyly simple character study. The man strikes every note with an unmistakable honesty that comes through in each thoughtful response, in each perplexed expression, and each tired and weary sigh. There is a gelling, a chemistry if you will, between Gleeson’s approach and McDonagh’s script which gives us a realistic and sturdy anchor within the film’s almost otherworldly vileness. That clash is just one of the film’s many compelling components.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

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38 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Calvary”

    • Wasn’t it great. I wrote this review a few months ago, but it was still well after the film had been released. I can’t believe I waited so long. I was so enthralled in this thing.

  1. While I agree this is a very good film, I seriously doubt I will ever watch it again. It’s not just bleak, it’s almost completely devoid of light. Each encounter Father James had with one of these folks wore on me as much as it did him. By the end I felt battered and depressed.

    • Great points. It is beyond bleak in viewing the worst in humanity. It doesn’t give the audience any refuge. I think that will probably keep me from constantly going back to it. But I do plan on seeing it again. Just so much that I love about it.

  2. It’s a shining spotlight on the talents of Gleeson who acts perfectly in the film. I love the film. The scenes on the coast line, the gray of the filters used in filming, the starkness and the climax all saddened me very much.

    • It was a crushing climax, wasn’t it. And it builds up to that moments in the most somber and emotional way. It seems like the only direction things could have went. And yes, Gleeson is simply superb. Absolute perfect casting.

    • He is always good regardless of the size of his role. But this was really something special. He deserved Oscar consideration for this work.

  3. This is easily my favorite performance that Brendan Gleeson has done as I really felt for his character as well as display someone who is trying to maintain a sense of faith while knowing that not everything is going well. He was seriously overlooked in the awards season.

    • Terribly overlooked. I agree 100%. This is my favorite Gleeson performance which is saying something considering his wealth of strong work. Such perfect casting.

  4. A great performance by Gleeson in a film I liked a lot. Mark recommended it and I’m glad I caught it as a result…it ended up being one of my favourites of 2014. It treads a fine line between comedy and tragedy and I enjoyed most of those supporting turns too.

  5. You liked this more than I did, the word “downer” really does describe how I mostly felt about it. It was just slow, but the acting was excellent. Especially Gleeson. Great review!

  6. Damn, Father James sure had a tough time. It sounds interesting, especially the part where we don’t know who wants to kill him. I have this on demand I think, gonna finally give it a watch because of this awesome review 🙂 How are you my friend?

  7. I have this and haven’t watched it yet. Got lost in my pile up of films to get to. Thanks for the head’s up. Will swing back around after I’ve watched it, Keith. Thanks!

  8. I found not one sliver of humor in this movie, how is it even considered a black comedy? Ugh, couldn’t dislike this set of characters more. And unfortunately that ended up impacting greatly my enjoyment of the film. It has been getting rave reviews from everyone else though. I’m totally on an island when it comes to this one! 🙂

    • I’ve been on that island. I really don’t put much into the black comedy element. I see it barely but honestly it is such a vague thing that I don’t really view it as such. For me it was more of a stinging indictment of some of humanity’s worst traits. Dark, despicable, and relentless. I use those adjectives in the most positive of ways though.

  9. Its a really interesting film for sure. Love Gleeson’s performance and a really provocative and moving film altogether. Definitely one of 2015’s more underrated films

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