In a confessional, a sexually abused parishioner threatens to murder Father James, a good and kind-hearted priest. In the ensuing week, he must face the darkness seeping through the cracks of his quaint Irish village before ultimately confronting his very mortality.
John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is best viewed in a near-empty art house theatre, as far off the beaten path as one can get while still remaining in civilized territory. The setting must be intimate, the kind of intimacy viewers will have to leave the safety of blockbusters and multiplexes to find. As the lights blacken and the shadows in the corners of the room spread out, the viewer will find the faintest traces of uncertainty lingering in the back of their mind. Uncertainty about what, exactly, the film actually is. Will it be a darkly comedic romp about a disgruntled old priest? Will it be a dour, serious look at the nature of spirituality and its place in the modern age? One hundred and one minutes later, once the closing credits began to roll, it will become clear that this vagueness is precisely what the film is.
Calvary, at its heart, is about uncertainty.
McDonagh’s cinematic approach to this story is unique, even for European cinema. The film is not divided into acts, rather it flows at a leisurely pace; subplots are not solved and wrapped up with neat little ribbons, rather they fade out into obscurity; the film in general is less so a film, and more so an average day put on a cinematic canvas. And, like most average days, there is little closure. The characters, and by extension the audience, are left with the same vague idea of what the future holds that they had in the opening of the film. As a result, the film takes on a cerebral quality, as if these characters are wandering aimlessly through a dream strange, hilarious, and, at times, terrible.
This meandering, this unknown, is what propels the major arc of Father James (played brilliantly by veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson). The good Father faces an existential crisis in seemingly every encounter throughout the course of the film. Why does he strive to be a good priest, when his fellow Bishop Montgomery (David McSavage) is almost comically daft in all aspects of godliness? Why does he strive to preach morality and spirituality in a town where, largely, religion is not taken seriously at best, and outright mocked at worst? Was being a good priest worth it if he is destined to be murdered for being precisely that? Is he even a good priest if he cannot get his parishioners to listen to him? And, most importantly, was joining the priesthood worth the strained relationship with his suicidal daughter? These nagging doubts are well concealed, hiding in the edges of things, and are slowly brought out with each subtle encounter Father James has with the ensemble supporting cast.
This is perhaps best illustrated in a scene towards the middle of the film, wherein the atheist Dr. Harte (Aiden Gillen, of Game of Thrones fame) relays to the good Father an anecdote about a young boy who was rendered deaf, mute, blind, and paralyzed after botched anesthesia; the doctor explains that being unable to hear oneself scream is likely the inner turmoil that victims of sexual abuse are faced with in every waking moment of their lives. Father James grows rowdy, threatening the doctor before getting inebriated and assaulting the bartender. This scene is almost the climax of the Father’s disillusionment towards his own life path; he is not angry at the doctor’s morbid story, but rather frustrated by the fact that he strives to be a beacon of morality among an institution still haunted by the evils of sexual abuse. At that point in the film he had already lost so much, and all for the crime of being a good man surrounded by the unjust and cruel.
This lack of personal direction washes off from Father James and seeps onto the supporting characters, as well. The Father’s daughter, played by a severely underused Kelly Reilly, is introduced to the audience as having attempted suicide some time before the events of the film; while she goes through noticeable character development and seems to grow along with her father, her arc is still not neatly wrapped up by the last scene, leaving many aspects up in the air. There is a subplot concerning domestic abuse and polyamory laced throughout the first half of the film that, rather than acting like a traditional arc or plot, seems to be simply a part of the setting, and as such is not delved into the way a more mainstream film would do so. Arguably the best of the supporting cast, detached drunken millionaire Michael Fitzgerald (played to perfection by Black Books alum Dylan Moran), is given an arc with surprising nuance unexpected of what is essentially a comic relief character, who blind-sides the audience with an emotional revelation towards the end of the film which is largely left unresolved. In most films, this abundance of meandering subplots and character arcs that seem to fade out rather than resolve themselves would come across as poor writing, but what makes them work so well in Calvary is how deliberate they are. McDonagh is not using these elements to propel the plot, but rather to weave them into a sort of cinematic tapestry on which the film is imprinted. Because ambiguity seems to be the uniting theme of the film, each element is given a deliberately ambiguous ending.
Beyond the writing, the film is a marvel from a purely visual perspective. Larry Smith’s cinematography is crisp and atmospheric, lending the film a sense of underlying eeriness beneath the picturesque captures of the Irish countryside. Time setting is used to perfect visual effect, as well; many of the more quiet, serene moments occur at day time and are thus fittingly quaint and intimate; in contrast, much of the uglier, reprehensible moments occur at night, using shadows and high contrast to perfect effect. These night scenes, particularly a brilliant sequence involving destruction at the Father’s church, mesh so perfectly with Patrick Cassidy’s original score that the film’s distinct personality rings through; this is no doubt a very humorous film, but it is much darker tonally and thematically than McDonagh’s previous work. Above all else, the filmmakers grasped how integral atmosphere is in making an effective dark comedy, and subject matter can only carry that atmosphere so far. The visuals must provide the rest, and what Smith and McDonagh have given the audience is essentially a cinematic art gallery.
The major problem with Calvary is, unfortunately, a problem that has plagued McDonagh’s other works; he simply does not write women very well. While Kelly Reilly gives a fine performance, and while her character is given significantly more development than the women in McDonagh’s prior film The Guard, she still feels like a supplementary character, not meshing as well into the overall tapestry of the film the way the rest of the cast does. It does not help that she is the only substantial female character amongst a sea of men; the only other women in the film appear as almost an afterthought, and barely even interacts with Reilly. While the movie does avoid the overt sexism typical of a Hollywood feature and does not sexually objectify or condescend to the female characters, it simply falls into the trap of not giving them much to do.
Despite not faring well on the feminist front, Calvary is a triumph of art house cinema. It is the bizarre lovechild of dry humor and pure bleakness, of morality and immorality. It examines the place of religion and Catholicism in the modern world without condemning nor embracing either, leaving its overall message as uncertain as its characters. Because, in the end, we live in uncertain times, and cannot rely on others to know how our respective stories end. In real life, many stories do not end; they meander, they wander, and sometimes, they fade into the background.