“Calvary” begins with the always reliable Brendan Gleeson, garbed in clerical attire, entering a confessional ready to listen to a sinner’s oration of his wrongdoings and offer him guidance and forgiveness.
The scene proceeds to play out much differently than expected, as Gleeson’s priest, Father James, is threatened by his visitor. The visitor proclaims to have been a victim of molestation by a now deceased pastor,and decides the best way to achieve retribution is to shock the community by murdering a good, well respected priest, namely James himself.
The confrontation is brilliantly captured in one long scene with the camera fixed on Gleeson’s sturdy face as he responds and calmly listens to his assailant who gives him one week to settle his affairs.
This opening scene exemplifies Irish director John Michael McDonagh’s talent for combining humor with tragedy in an aesthetically cool and interesting way as he did in his first feature, “The Guard,”also starring Gleason. Unfortunately, the film that follows fails to achieve this balance of dark humor and drama as cohesively as his previous outing.
McDonagh and his brother Martin McDonagh, director of “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” have trademarked their own Irish offshoot of Coen Brother, Tarantino-like violent dark comedies, which “Calvary” isn’t quite up to par with.
McDonagh continually tries to raise very serious themes of faith, depression, alcoholism and the financial crash, not to mention the controversial subject of the Catholic Church’s child molestation cases, while at the same time maintaining the same comic features.
The problem isn’t necessarily that this feat isn't possible, but that McDonagh never successfully finds a way to blend these different tones together. In the same scene he will demand the audience sympathize with a tragic element of a character or situation, then, within an instant, switch the dial from relatable melodrama to the distant Tarantino-esque world with a pulpy line, then immediately jerk the tone from parodic and sarcastic back to deeply sympathetic.
One almost gets whiplash when the acting, music, lighting and direction of a scene is demanding their sympathy when just moments earlier they were simply supposed to soak up and enjoy a character’s kooky characteristics and dialog.
It becomes nearly impossible to actually be moved in this drastically fluid state of pulp and sentimentality, two tones which a director like Wes Anderson has shown it’s possible to move between, but which McDonagh doesn’t quite have a handle on.
The opening scene sets the stage for what could have been an intense investigation of one man’s faith in a world which is so anarchic it demands his death for no rational reason. However, Gleeson is the only character in the film worthy of any credibility or empathy. The rest of the town inhabitants are one-dimensional, and utterly unlikable characters including a crooked financial tycoon (Dylan Moran), a bitter pub owner (Pat Shortt), a depressive doctor (Aidan Gillen), an idiotic butcher (Chris O’Dowd), his cheating wife (Orla O’Rourke) and her lover (Isaach De Bankolé).
The cast is made up of a great selection of character actors like O’Dowd, Moran, De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh as an aging American, Kelly Reilley as Father James’ daughter and Gleeson’s own son, Domhnall Glesson, as an imprisoned murderer, and they all shine in respective moments. However, the performances fail to accumulate to anything worthwhile, as the performers are stuck in characters who all shrivel in comparison to Gleeson’s towering and all-knowing priest.
With all of these despicable people living in this town, saying and doing appalling things, the obvious question of God’s existence is bound to come up, but every character is so impossibly horrific, daft, and one-dimensional that Gleeson’s character and his faith stand unchallenged.
Gleeson carries the film on his broad and dependable shoulders, owning every second of his screen time. Like actors such as Paul Giamatti and the late James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Gleeson personifies a figure that isn’t represented in usual glamorous Hollywood fare, and because of this, his characters appear more human and relatable.
Besides Gleeson, the films greatest achievement is its incredible cinematography by Larry Smith. Smith films County Slingo, featuring a landscape out of a fairy tale and located on the Irish Coast, with a sense of appreciation for its beautiful strangeness, while at the same time representing its haunting and mysterious qualities.
“Calvary” is by no means a bad film. It features a brilliant leading performance from the larger than life Gleeson, and spotlights the jaw dropping Irish countryside in an inspiring way. It has moments of greatness in it. These moments just belong in contrasting versions of the same film.
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