If The Guard was a strong, entertaining if somewhat slight caustic comedy, Calvary keels over and knocks things back down to Earth, hinting at even greater things under John McDonagh’s sleeves in the process. The film, which details one week in the life of Father James (Brendan Gleeson) and takes place in a quintessentially Irish countryside, deals with crises of faith with an uncustomary humanity and sincerity (especially considering John and brother Martin’s reputation for snarky, brittle humor). The warmth shouldn’t be confused for lack of despair though – the center of the plot is James being told in a confession booth that the man confessing plans to kill him at the end of a week. The reason? He was molested by another priest in his childhood and, after trying to cope for years, he can no longer come to terms with himself and needs to lash out to acquire some sense of vengeance.
It doesn’t get any darker than this, and the film tackles issues of religious conviction, the place of the Church in modern society, and the nature of revenge as well as the extent to which any individual member of a Church can be innocent when others commit obvious sin. Father James is a good priest, whose crisis of faith, sense of doubt, hope for his community, weariness toward the world, genuine care, lingering malaise, and all other emotions are thrown together and pitted against each other in a towering, titanic performance from Brendan Gleeson. But his fundamental goodness belies how he is part of a tense, questionable institution. Focusing on a priest who himself shows no signs of carnal sin allows McDonagh to move beyond the individual and focus on the institution, to ask whether Father James is guilty of association simply by being in the Church, and to measure this against the very real pain he suffers as someone who intends good but finds himself shunned by those around him. Calvary’s drama is an open flesh wound that affects all, and McDonagh shows no hesitance in jumping into the wound head-first.
McDonagh doesn’t have the answers to these questions, and, pointedly, he often doesn’t seem to try. In fact, while we expect a dramatic film all bent up on angst and fear, what we get is much closer to an evocative, aimless malaise. Perhaps it is for realizing this guilt that Father James turns away from actively focusing on his would-be death (he knows who his would-be assailant is, but cannot in good faith reveal his identity for it would contradict his own beliefs in the sacred bond between priests, god, and would-be sinners in confession). Instead, he maintains his priesthood and spends his final week trying to make peace with the members of his community, doing gentle deeds for people who may not even want them. He often finds himself dumb-founded at those around him, reacting with a quiet, pensive glare as he tries desperately not to judge and has absolutely no clue what to do with those around him. It’s a very quiet, non-active film, and it wouldn’t be far off to describe it as “scenes of Brendan Gleeson looking at things while absolutely gorgeous cinematography elevates his thought process to the heights of human beauty”. It’s not quite Bergman’s Winter Light – as everyone seems to point out – but the thought is there, even if Tarkovsky is floating around too.
This results in a film at once calming and desperate, a movie of profound cognitive dissonance unsure how to let itself be known. It captures the everyday confusions of a life struggling to live itself. There’s a warmth to Father James as a person, but it underlies something more tired and weary – a sense that, maybe his coming death is a blessing in disguise, something to send him far away from the troubles of the mortal world and the growing distaste he has for the Church and for its distance from society. Every genial, gentle “thank you” threatens to reveal a tired soul. He has no purpose, and one week of making amends before death gives him one.
One might not expect the previous three paragraphs to lead into a sentence about how funny this film is, but, well, that’s comedy from across the pond for you. The aimless narrative allows McDonagh ample time for low-key character comedy as Father James goes from person to person and tackles their everyday existential crises. While McDonagh’s film is warm, it also has an undeniably brittle streak, largely in how petty and selfish many of the town’s cartoon residents are. It seems the writer-director is well aware of stereotypes about Irish comedy – that it is all genial, twee, quirky, old village people who act less out of reality than some English person’s dreams of a less developed people who exist solely to patronize while on vacation.
And McDonagh’s having absolutely none of it, rendering many of these quirky stereotypes and then pushing and proding them to deeper and darker places no one would want to go, bridging the genial and the creepily off-kilter. The film, as much as it subverts the nihilistic treatment of evil-doing priests in modern-society, also doubles as a challenge to stereotypes about Irish comedy, of which the old Irish priest is a key caricature. Father James is not this fun-loving, wisdom-filled, aloof priest, nor is he the hardened, selfish kind populated by more serious dramas – he’s something in between. A human, one might say, even if he is also a meat-bag upon which McDonagh can place all of the religious fears and convictions of his country.
Even more shockingly, McDonagh shows he’s no mere script-writer dabbling as a director on the side. He knows that film is a visual medium, and if he’s less fully formed as a visual storyteller than a writer, he pulls out a few stunning shots largely absent his debut feature. If the film is largely washed out, filled with tired stricken beauty to capture the haunt of this emotional limbo of a countryside, Larry Smith’s cinematography contrasts this with a few moments of soul-sapped blackness. All of these combine to give the film’s Irish countryside a sense of hellish place. The best bit, however, is the film’s very first image, a painful close-up of James in the confession booth that quavers and holds for a threatening length. As he’s told about his would-be assailant’s childhood experiences, his face is illuminated if only by its contrast to the impenetrable darkness around it. As he reaches a nausea that threatens to overflow, the only thing he can do is lean back into the darkness to hide his disgust. Watching him spend a week trying to make it back into the light is alternately painful and heartwarming, but that doesn’t mean he ever arrives.