John Michael McDonagh has followed up his truly spectacular 2011 film, The Guard, with Calvary, a movie that will get under your skin and stay there for longer than you can probably stand.
The movie opens on Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in a confessional booth, listening to an unseen man tell horrifying stories of the sexual and psychological abuse he suffered as a boy at the hands of another priest. This mystery man has decided that the only fitting revenge would be to kill a priest. But not the one that abused him (he’s dead already, anyway). No, he wants to kill a good priest, an innocent priest. That, as he sees it, will make people take notice.
If you think that sounds like the opening to Boondock Saints 4, know that this movie is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Instead, this is a quiet exploration, a week in the life of a good man trying to be a better man. He just continues to go about his priestly duties. He visits with his parishioners: a squirrely butcher (Chris O’Dowd) and his openly adultering (and mysteriously abused) wife (Oria O’Rourke); a young man with the outward appearance of a handsome, kind, lost puppy, but hiding a deep well of psychosis; a bitter, condescending, grossly wealthy atheist. And Father James deals with all of this and more while also taking care of his visiting daughter (he took his vows after his wife died), Lily (Kelly Reilly), after her failed suicide attempt.
Calvary is an unusual film. It’s being referred to by many as a sort of “whodunit,” a pre-murder mystery. But that may only be because there’s no other fitting reference point for this kind of movie. We, the audience, may be trying to figure out which of these characters is the potential killer, but Father James isn’t. He’s not on a Liam Neeson quest. He says he already knows who the man is and he’s not trying to stop anything. And not only does the movie defy genre (is it a dark comedy? a quiet thriller?), but it messes with structure as well. Pretty much every scene is just a conversation between Father James and one other character. These don’t build upon each other and progress plot-wise; instead, they all simply expand further on the themes James is enmeshed in: forgiveness, goodness, acceptance, integrity. The real tension builds imperceptibly as James tries to maintain his place in a world that has essentially, very abruptly, spat him out. As he quietly, willingly climbs that proverbial hill to his own death, Father James slowly unravels, reaching a maniacal state before we may even realize he’s struggling (and definitely before he realizes it himself).
By the end of Calvary, we have not been taken on a typical journey. We have been through an ordeal. The entire movie seems to exist less to tell a story than to provoke thought and spur conversation. It should be noted that this McDonagh is brother to Martin McDonagh, basically the Tarantino of Irish theater (who also made excellent use of Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges). Both men have a way of horrifying through comedy. They get under your skin, sink to the pit of your stomach, and are content to sit there, making you uncomfortable. It would be terrible if it weren’t so brilliant.