"Calvary"-- 4 stars
The best ongoing collaborations between actor and director are ones where both artists challenge themselves to new ventures with each film they embark on together. They don't settle on one genre, on what worked once, and then try to repeat it until it fails. Just look at Adam Sandler and Dennis Dugan and nearly two decades of the same man-child comedies. They make money together, sure, but neither of them have a shred of artistic integrity to their names because of the complete lack of variety. The combination of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton and their repetitive weirdness is wearing just as thin.
The really good collaborations dare to be different each time out. Compare Sandler/Dugan to a pair like Kurt Russell and John Carpenter or Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock. That's just two examples, but those latter duos changed things up just about every time and sought out those creative challenges. It's way to early to carve their place into timeless Hollywood stone, but an English director and an Irish actor have a new and good thing going on for their second feature in a row.
Director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendan Gleeson delivered an uniquely entertaining police comedy named "The Guard" back in 2011. Gleeson played a cantankerous flat-foot busting Don Cheadle's chops as an American FBI agent partner. The film boasts a stupendous 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes and rivaled the praise Gleeson garnered working with John's brother Martin on "In Bruges" from 2008. John and Brendan's second collaboration, "Calvary," which opens this August in American theaters is a wholly (and holy) different film than "The Guard." It's at an equally strong 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The difference jumps right out with a dark premise established in the first five minutes of the film. Gleeson plays Father James, a stern Catholic priest for a small seaside Irish community of Sligo. He begins to hear a startling confession on the other side of the booth screen. An anonymous grown man confesses to being raped by priests for years as a child. His details and memories are jarring. The man has not coped with or relinquished the pain. Father James is nearly speechless and doesn't have an answer for him. The man's desire is not to kill a bad priest, but a good one because that would send the requisite shock value equal to the crimes committed against him. His chooses Father James as his victim and the mysterious man gives the priest a week to get his affairs in order before meeting him on the beach next Sunday morning.
From there, "Calvary" follows that tenuous week of waiting and wondering. Father James has a hunch that he might know who the man is, but we aren't privy to that information as the audience. When asked by others, the father doesn't say. That dramatic build-up leads us to question and suspect everyone in town we see Father James encounter.
For much of the week, it's still business as usual where Father James plays confronter, mediator, and listener towards the many civil needs of his parish community. The tasks range from racial issues, suicidal thoughts, domestic violence, and caring for the sick and elderly. Comedy star Chris O'Dowd, "Munich" femme fatale Marie-Josee Croze, "Game of Thrones" star Aidan Gillen, veteran actor M. Emmet Walsh, Dylan Moran of "Shaun of the Dead," newcomer Killian Scott, Gleeson's own son Domhall Gleeson from "About Time," and few Irish locals that teamed with Gleeson and McDonagh on "The Guard" comprise some of those locals with problems.
Through interacting with the townspeople, we learn little details about Father James's good nature that seeks to imbalance and correct his former character flaws and sins as a younger man. Meanwhile, his daughter from before becoming a priest, the troubled Fiona (Kelly Reilly from "Flight"), comes into town for a visit from London. The closer the earmarked day gets, the greater the mystery and the greater the good father's resolve and nerve is tested because more threats appear as the week goes on.
"Calvary" references the English term for Golgotha, the Jerusalem site where Christ was crucified. The ominous meaning soaks into the film quite well. The overwhelming sense of an impending showdown is excellent dramatic fuel to keep this journey taut and interesting. Filmed in County Sligo on the northwestern coast of Ireland, the raw landscape adds to the feeling of isolation and the intimate dynamics of a small, tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone. With that crafted tone, McDonagh's film feels like a religious-tinged western and a good one too. Gleeson's lead is phenomenal. He's a pro and the lesser-known cast behind him rises to the occasion. The slow build is excellent and the pay off resonates. If you can find this little film in limited release or on Video On Demand, you'll be well-challenged.
Lesson #1: Questiong how to absolve the past-- The opening confession reveals a man who doesn't want to cope and doesn't want to forgive the people who wronged him. His desires are stronger and darker than that. Many people come to men of the cloth looking for absolution. They seeks advice and the beginnings of forgiveness. Others know exactly how they are sinning and why, ignoring any personal desire for stopping their wrongdoings before absolution is needed. We witness Father James addressing both types of desires. At the same time, he's a man seeking to focus more of virtues than sins.
Lesson #2: Reflecting on your life and whether or not you lived a good one-- Any man faced with the prospect of death, especially the "I will kill you next Sunday" variety, will give pause to the entirety of their life. Father James doesn't reach a crisis of faith, per se, but he is indeed challenged on the inside. Integrity is challenged as well. He questions whether or not he has led well or done the right things by others.
Lesson #3: The binds of the commandment "thou shall not kill"-- As Father James explains to one character, there isn't an asterisk on the Ten Commandments, particularly the one about killing. By the letter of the Biblical law, there aren't any special cases where killing is allowed. Under the circumstances of the threat against him, the question of self-defense comes up and creates an intriguing dialogue towards the strictness of "thou shall not kill."
Lesson #4: Confronting someone who does not seek forgiveness-- Let's take Lesson #1 a step further towards the serious threat at the center of the film. Those that seek forgiveness or ask for forgiveness tend to get just that. Those that don't and continue to either hate or sin have taken a dark turn. They seek attention to be loved, admired, feared, or, worse, hated and despised. One higher priest giving advice to Father James says "beware the man who wants to be hated and despised." For this man seeking Father James as his target, things have digressed that far. No words or actions are enough to make up for what happened to him as a child. This man might not be able to be saved.