Is there a pair of filmmaking siblings who have a more devious mind than the McDonagh brothers? Not friggin' likely, and it's to all of our benefit that their hearts are so dark. Martin McDonagh's claim to fame is the pitch black assassin film, In Bruges, followed by the twisted Seven Psychopaths. His lesser-known bro, John Michael, directed the most successful Irish comedy of all-time in The Guard. That film reveled in political incorrectness but wasn't especially deep, however John Michael's incredibly rich, sublime follow-up Calvary has so many layers it's downright Biblical.
Part existential comedy, film noir, and commentary on the scandalous Catholic Church, McDonagh's ability to balance three competing tones is a thing of pure beauty. It doesn't hurt he's reteamed with The Guard's Brendan Gleeson, making the most of a rare opportunity to show his leading man ability. Like a powerful titan carrying the weight of the world's ills on his shoulders, Gleeson plays devout Father James, who tends his flock in a peanut gallery of a small Irish community. The film begins, shockingly, with the words "I first tasted semen at seven years old", but that's just the start of a disturbing confession James hears from an unseen man claiming to have been molested as a child. As some form of vengeance, he's decided to murder Father James in a week's time, even though he had nothing to do with the crime.
Or does he? One of the many underlying mysteries is whether this retribution is a just one or the product of a mind demented by his corrupted faith. Left to contemplate his eventual demise, James finds no solace in the vicious townspeople, a collection of deviants and nut jobs who couldn't give less of a crap about the Church. To them, the abuse scandals have turned it into a joke worth mocking, and by extension so is James. Chris O'Dowd plays a local butcher who doesn't mind that his wife (Orla O'Rourke) is cheating on him with another man (Isaach de Bankole) who beats her up. Aiden Gillan plays a savagely negative, coke-snorting surgeon, while the great M. Emmet Walsh is a writer who doesn't seem at all concerned about James' fate. Even when James approaches other priests on the matter they aren't much help, with McDonagh making a pointed statement on faith's inability to solve a tangible crisis.
It's interesting to see James walk through the five stages of grief, like a man diagnosed with a terminal disease. He seems to know his assailant but refuses to tell the police in hopes the man will instead seek absolution. While McDonagh doesn't shy away from the bleak and heavy nature of this complex story, he also instills a bit of hope in the relationship between James and his estranged daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). She's returned home after a failed suicide attempt, and while she remains a bit cynical about God she comes to lean on his sturdy spiritual resolve. But like any normal person, that resolve begins to waver as the day looms closer, and the film loses much of its humor in favor of James' somber reflections on sin and forgiveness.
Like The Guard, this film lives and breathes on Gleeson's powerful performance. His Father James is a complicated man, full of righteous spirit and human frailties and can't help but question his own salvation under such trying circumstances. The rest of the cast is solid but one wishes McDonagh would tone down some of the more outlandish characters that serve no narrative purpose. Does Calvary really need a movie-quoting gigolo? Sure it's worth a chuckle but it's far more of a distraction in a film that is walking a very delicate tonal balance.
Calvary is probably too introspective, too dark for casual moviegoers but hopefully enough strong reviews will gain this beautifully crafted film the attention it deserves.