“Memories fade. That’s what’s so terrible about them.”

“No they don’t. Not really.”

John Michael McDonagh follows up his exceptional directorial debut (again involving Brendan Gleeson as a besieged, wry community focal point) The Guard with something a fair bit darker. It contains plenty of laughs, but they’re harsher, devilish, this time around.

Calvary Poster

Calvary (2014) opens (following Saint Augustine: “Two criminals were crucified with Christ. One was saved; do not despair. One was not: do not presume.”) with Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) taking confession, and hearing the following line: “I was seven years old when I first tasted semen.”

“Certainly a startling opening line,” is Father Lavelle’s perfectly reasonable response, and with that brutal, pitch-black funny initial exchange the tone is unequivocally set. Gleeson’s priest won’t be mincing his words: and he’ll have plenty of such exchanges to contend with in the following days, which are given a wider, portentous significance: that opening confessional ends with a promise from the unseen that he will kill Lavelle a week on Sunday. “For doing nothing wrong,” the confessor establishes his harrowing promise, an innocent for an innocent. He ends with: “Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one!”

Thereafter it’s back to work, Father Lavelle offering up no immediate suggestion of torment. He playfully berates an altar boy for “diminishing” the wine stocks; he remains unmoved as another priest exhibits flippant ignorance; he wanders the beach, the appointed venue for his imminent execution. He returns home: there’s a bleak simplicity about the place, which, other than a crucifix, contains nothing other than his beloved dog.

He relates the nature of the threat made against him to his superior, but resolves nothing. There is no desperation about what may be coming. You get the sense that his equanimity surrounding his potential death may not merely be denial or artifice. He may (and this is a question the film never answers) welcome what’s in store.

His daughter (Kelly Reilly), arriving from London, adds another layer of complex despair: she’s recently attempted suicide (and there is even a joke about this as Father Lavelle mocks his daughter, wrist bandaged:

“You didn’t do it right.”

“I know, I cut across rather than down.”

These are doughty folk!

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He continues to unravel the film’s characters as he wanders amongst the locals, clearly invested in them as human beings. He’s not just wearing the garb and adhering to vocational responsibilities. We see him emerge in the distance, beyond a billowing, unveiling sheet tacked to a line, a striking figure patrolling a majestic, verdantly imposing landscape, to cross paths with a woman improbably donning shades under unbroken cloud.

“Do they make me look like Jackie O?”

“Not really.”

“Is this what you came gawp at?”

The revealed black-eye running us through two more characters: Jack (Chris O’Dowd), the woman’s husband, who scarcely takes the priest seriously and who lays the blame with her lover, Simon (Issy De Bankole), the local black mechanic (occasionally the source of much Don Cheadle-esque very funny “convenient foreigner” racial stereotype moments), who’s as dismissively unrepentant as he is anomalous. These are people and problems he has no dominion over. His presence is really that of ineffectual altruism, a man following a rite of passage down a series of dead ends.

Amongst the other characters we meet: there’s M. Emmet Walsh’s ancient writer, with whom he has a gently sardonic accord; Aiden Gillen’s glaring, caricaturish hospital porter; and, perhaps most memorably, Dylan Moran’s abrasively awful banker, who garishly resides in the country manor, noisily rattling around countless rooms and, in a moment of horribly funny disregard, drags a rather expensive (“I don’t know what it means. I don’t have to, I own it.”) painting off his wall and urinates on it as Lavelle, already provoked into uncharacteristic, barely subdued ire at the nonchalant display of guileless irresponsibility and arrogance, looks on. It’s a key moment of hysterical symbolism that Scorsese’s recent antihero Jordan Belfort might well appreciate, and an act of sabotage that’s as definitive as it is amusing.

Moran’s banker had, during that particular set-piece, offered up a line that resounds right through the film:

“I feel guilty. Or I feel I should feel guilty. Not the same thing I’m sure.”

On another occasion (and during a rare predominantly-funny scene, a young man approaches Lavelle in an otherwise empty church.

“Take a pew. Literally.”

He goes on to talk the directionless young man out of joining the army.

“I’ve always thought it was psychotic for anyone to join the army during peacetime.”

“There are no borders in the war on terror, father.”

“I don’t think Sligo’s high on the list for Al Qaeda.”

The young man then bemoans his lack of sexual excitement.

“Have you tried pornography?” asks Lavelle.

“I’ve exhausted all the possibilities, almost. I’m onto chicks with dicks.”

Even here, as we laugh, McDonagh is deeply incisive. The mirth hits, but the aftertaste is bitter and more enduring than the comedy.

Lavelle has, by now, taken the loan of a gun from another priest, and takes an opportunity, as he falls off the wagon (he’d earlier hinted at that part of his past: “Do you not like a drink, father?” “I liked it too much.”) in emphatic style, and retorts to the abuse hurled at him by the landlord (another character intermittently and expertly commingled with the array of minor players) by shooting out half the bar, for which he gets bloodied with a baseball bat. Things are spiraling nastily, and the momentum, as the mooted encounter looms, is not with Lavelle.

He discusses, with his daughter (who has expressed what she perceives as her abandonment at the expense of her father’s calling: her mother has long since passed away, and we never find out whether that event led to his priesthood, or much else about their shared lives, other than the comment, when asked by his daughter why he has no photos of her mother on his bare walls, he quickly asserts: “I don’t need a photo to remember your mother.”), her failed suicide, and his conviction seems evidently to have diminished at the hands of the kind of problem no one, really, has any answer to. Still, he is compelled to pose the question.

“It’s a tired old argument, I suppose. But what about all those you leave behind?”

“I belong to no-one but myself.”

“True. False.”

That exchange typifies what McDonagh is pursuing, through his broken, ambivalent priest. Individualism, “freedom,” has failed these people. Beyond the church, so reviled here as an agent of abuse and complicity (there’s a horrible moment when the banker part absolves his own sense of guilt, part showboats by making a donation that continues to rise, as another priest welcomes such “generosity” — the complicity here needn’t be overstated), there’s no apparent alternative to chaos that’s usurped its hold. The “community” doesn’t work in any sense of that word. Lavelle is the only thing binding everyone in any way that isn’t revulsive, and his hold is virtually nil. What actually exists is a warped carnival of untethered souls, notionally close but scared of each other, their uneasy familiarity borne of cynicism and mistrust. Lavelle doubts that he can effect any kind of real solace for these people, but will try anyway, distracting himself (and them) in the name of the Lord but increasingly projecting a sense of being doomed to observe them unhappily play out their lives.

During the one scene involving everyone (in a pub, obviously), two priests scuffle, and the resultant upended table of drinks, this being a film set in Ireland, is naturally more inflammatory than two men of god coming to blows. The ensuing exclamation towards Lavelle of: “Your church is on fire!” (initially rebuffed as mischief — “Ah, fuck off Brennan, I’m not in the mood.”) before it becomes apparent that the church really is on fire feels like a great moment from The Guard. His church gone, he is symbolically redundant, merely now awaiting a confrontation ever more ominously foregrounded.

“Who would do such a thing?”

“An enemy of the church.”

“That could be half the country.”

His daughter, who has returned to London, phones him on what might be his last day. “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated,” is the last thing he says to her before heading off for the encounter.

McDonagh, as we approach the end, can’t resist a bit of Western grandeur, widescreen immensity, and a pay off that one or two critics have taken issue with. I can understand that to an extent, but I disagree: the film can hardly avoid inevitable drama of a certain scope if it’s to deal with it’s opening setup, and McDonagh has already dealt with some of the grandest imaginable themes. There were similar gripes about Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven denouement, which, it was said, ran against the film’s message (as those critics saw it) by reverting to a grandstanding, blood-soaked conclusion. Such criticism, for me, entirely missed the point. Anyway, Calvary certainly doesn’t peter out inconclusively or ambiguously: I won’t go much further than that (though I will say: the title is relevant in regards to the finale, and there’s a great exchange, which includes the following: “Do you have any regrets?” “I never finished Moby-Dick.”)

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The performances are uniformly fantastic, but it’s no underestimation to suggest that Brendan Gleeson, with this, is immediately (If he wasn’t before) to be considered amongst the very greatest actors. He’s a subdued stoic figure exuding enormous, bittersweet gravitas. He’s hardly a figure of authority, more a prism through which we see the members of his errant flock, an opportunity for some of them to flex what they see as justifiable rancor: he’s goaded and toyed with, a relic, tolerated out of some vague, almost eroded deference. To play such a potentially superfluous character, interacting with the brazen heathen in distinct, carefully cultivated ways, and somehow managing to retain some kind of integral relevance, a man commanding threadbare respect, is a hard thing to quantify. But Gleeson is perfect: he stays afloat for a long while as a tragic figure refusing to submit to the prevailing winds. We admire that and there’s something about Gleeson that embodies it so incomparably.

Calvary is, in any case, a whodunit that would thrive entirely without that element. It works perfectly well as a portrayal of a time and a place and of a man struggling with the myriad forces that are far too potent for any number of priests to assail: there are good people, McDonagh says, but they’re outnumbered, and corruptive influence is the devilry here. Bad people are also victims: of weakness, hubris, self-hatred, hopelessness, prejudice. “Do not presume,” as the opening commanded. There is anger about the history of abuse in the church, but it’s an anger of futility rather than easy focus. Those dealing in retribution and pain have been agonized by similar somewhere along the line, and on it goes.

The humor in Calvary is not life-affirming so much as death-repelling. The emphasis, as opposed to the The Guard, which is uproarious with a large hint of troubling, is more freighted the other way: the comedy here seems to largely occupy a sense of verisimilitude. It gets less of a look in, basically. There’s a determination to laugh in the face of such desolation, but the message is one of enormous sadness and is affecting and uncompromising. And whilst it’s generous and eager to generate humor from often endlessly grim, disconsolate subject matter, it will linger as a ferociously bleak and powerful piece of work.

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