Father James (Brendan Gleeson) sits down in his booth to give confession. The man who he is seeing comes in the other side. The man (who we only hear) tells the priest that he is going to kill him in seven days, because he was raped by a priest as a young boy. Due to church laws about the sacrament of Reconciliation, Father James cannot know who the man on the other side of the booth is. He'll just have to wait and see. Over the course of the next week, we see Father James devolve into madness as he attempts to improve the lives of the people around him before heading to an uncertain fate on the next Sunday. The villagers in his small Irish town are all very disturbed in some way and despite his best efforts, their lives are out of his control.
Calvary has been billed as a dark comedy, mostly because director John Michael McDonagh last directed The Guard, which was a brutally dark comedy. However, while Calvary does have its share of pitch black humor, it is most certainly not a comedy. This is a pitch-black drama that may cause you to lose your faith in humanity at the end. You could say that it's a mystery flick, but I honestly feel that would shift the focus off of the film's themes. This is a film about a man's descent into madness and sadness, because the human condition is something that simply cannot be fixed. People will make mistakes and they will screw up their lives and sometimes, it's just beyond our control.
Brendan Gleeson is the star of this film and he anchors this movie with a sadness and remorse that is really quite excellent. He is truly a good man who is continually pushed to the edge in the name of a sick moral game that is being played. Gleeson's emotional scenes have huge payoffs and the sense of huge Shakespearean tragedy is prevalent throughout, often thanks to Gleeson's performance. He's the center of the movie and he's plays a firm, good man who often lets his anger flow in not-so-good ways. His character must deal with a messed up community that pushes him to his limits at his darkest hour. There are glimmers of optimism and hope, but in the end, Father James has succumbed to a society that has fallen into darkness. It's a tragic thing to watch and it makes for brilliant cinema.
The rest of the cast is good as well. It feels like a true ensemble cast, because there simply aren't many standouts. Everyone is just very, very good. Chris O'Dowd, Aiden Gillan, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, Domnhall Gleeson, David Wilmot and Owen Sharpe round out the rest of the cast and all of them are good in their own way. Gillan delivers a monologue towards the end of the film that is simply terrific and Moran has some funny moments as well. All in all, it's a terrific cast that works together really well.
Calvary is truly not a film that relies on its narrative. In fact, I would say that the film's mystery is completely inconsequential. There's a little bit of a sense of "Who's it going to be?" when Father James walks on the beach at the end, but this isn't a movie where you try to grab clues throughout the movie to try to find out who the potential murderer is. It's more of a character study. The man in the confession booth tells Father James that he needs to get his house in order in the next week and James does his best. However, as the day approaches, the darkness surrounds him and he realizes that there is simply no way out. The world is a sad, dark place that can't always be fixed.
The script for this film is terrific, balancing dark comedy and human drama. McDonagh's writing is witty and funny, but also serious. It truly feels Shakespearean and that's what makes this movie so terrific. The humor never overwhelms the film and when the darker elements become more intense, the humor is less prevalent. McDonagh knows when to crack a joke and when to be serious.
This is also a masterpiece of direction. Simply superb. The opening scene of this film features several startling lines and it's filmed in one solid take focusing on the face of Father James in the confession booth and it's a great way to kick off the film. McDonagh gives each scene time to develop and he knows how to capture his dialogue. The cinematography focuses on the lush mountains of Ireland and adds some majesty, which only elevates the tragedy in this film. The music also adds quite a bit to the film and it gets much more serious towards the end. All in all, this is a technically perfect film that works on almost every level.
This movie does take a little bit of time to get going. That's really the only negative. Calvary's characters and stories aren't quite as interesting at the beginning, but they progressively get much more entertaining. Calvary takes place over the course of a single week and that's a very interesting set up. Father James is very involved in the lives of every one of his parishioners and he really wants to help them all. He just doesn't realize that they truly are messed up beyond repair. It's an interesting dynamic that really carries the film and it's very hard to put into writing. However, this is most certainly a film that provokes a discussion and the ending should certainly spark some great discussions.
Calvary is a character study about a good man who can't overcome the darkness in the world. He starts out with a pure heart and loads of optimism about helping others, but eventually falls into depression and sadness thanks to the tragically horrible world that he lives in. Gleeson is terrific in the lead role and the technical aspects are all brilliant. McDonagh has done something truly interesting and special here. It may take a while to get going, but Calvary is a brave, funny and audaciously dark piece of cinema and it will most certainly be remembered for a long time.
THE FINAL GRADE: A (8.7/10)