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Movie Review: 'Calvary' (2014) Starring Brendan Gleeson

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Director John Michael McDonagh clearly attempts to draw parallels to biblical events and religious themes with “Calvary.” But for those less aware of the specifics surrounding Jesus Christ’s death, or even where the name of the film is derived, the message is shrouded in ambiguity. The “whodunit” mystery lurking in the background, coupled with a host of diversely unsavory characters, will undoubtedly reel the audience in, while sharp dialogue and engaging ethical examinations offer plenty extra to admire. Gallows humor abounds, but so does a severe atmosphere, infused with contemplative attitudes on life, death, faith, and other comparably sobering subjects. Bits of hope and whimsy do try to sneak their way in, but are quickly quashed by somber theology that overshadows the comedy. “Calvary” is meticulously crafted, intelligently scripted, and Brendan Gleeson again gives an imitable performance – but the film’s vision, especially with its conclusion, lacks the clarity and assertive voice necessary to complement such a capable framework.

In a not-so-sleepy rural Irish village, Catholic priest Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) receives alarming news during a confession. A troubled soul informs the clergyman that a priest sexually abused him as a child and, as his assailant has since passed away, he intends to murder Father Lavelle in seven days as revenge against the church. Though initially aghast at the threat, the pastor continues to carry out his duties to the community. Attending to a bellicose butcher (Chris O’Dowd), an adulterous coquette (Orla O’Rourke), a disenchanted millionaire (Dylan Moran), an aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh), an atheistic doctor (Aidan Gillen), and his own fragile daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), Father Lavelle must contend with the varied evils surrounding him while coming to terms with his own beliefs and increasingly relevant mortality.

“I’m going to kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong.” The quirky, subtle wit of McDonagh’s “The Guard” is nearly absent from this new picture, though precise humor makes its way into numerous scenes. The tone is specific and purposeful but predominantly dreary. A stark distressfulness pokes through even the most outrageous bits of sardonic verbal maneuverings (the best of which is supplied by comedian Moran), markedly via Gleeson’s authenticity as a priest who analyzes sarcasm and sincerity equally with reservation and rumination. There are funny moments that are ultimately forgotten to the melancholy, downcast asides of looming death and individual impermanence. It’s all very existential as it draws parallels to significant religious junctures, such as Jesus’ sacrifice, the crucifixion at Calvary, and the Catholic Church’s acknowledgement of sins committed by leaders. As it turns out, the brooding mystery and surprise revelation aren’t nearly as effective as the simpler, poignant father/daughter bonding between James and Fiona.

The acting is vastly superior to the plot, which meanders around a gathering of usual suspects in a small town of distinctly flawed individuals condemning and avenging tragedies inflicted upon them by the church. No one is particularly likeable, though the point might be to place the audience in a position of judgment over these disparate souls to amplify James’ valuing of virtues (chiefly, forgiveness). It’s strikingly philosophical (with a sense of ongoing mind games) as the priest makes his rounds advising wayward youths, remorseless criminals, indifferent acquaintances, and ineffectual coworkers. His faith is tested as many townspeople not only dislike him (he represents an organization with obvious enemies) but also openly have little use for his services. The careful pacing and musing conversations lead to an ambiguous conclusion where purpose is particularly elusive and satisfaction is fleeting.

- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)

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