Sundance 2014 Review: Calvary
It’s awfully nice to see a movie where the hero has to solve his own murder and isn’t a pottery-making ghost. That’s the starting point for Calvary, an impressive but somewhat dour ensemble mystery starring Brendan Gleeson as a Catholic priest who learns in the confessional that he will be murdered in one week’s time, as penance for the church’s sins against the children abused by the clergy.
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh flips the murder mystery genre on its head a bit and spins it round, as usual using the crime as an excuse to uncover uncomfortable truths about the cast of characters, but this time through a protagonist who knows the killer’s motivations and identity ahead of time. He never voices his suspicions aloud, bound by his clerical oath, and so the audience is left to analyze every little conversation with the people of Gleeson’s parish, every one of whom has moved away from their faith in one form or another, and who might conceivably be willing to commit murder for their evolving principles or simply to exact revenge for a childhood malformed by an institution seemingly more interested in protecting its moral authority than seeking justice for its victims.
But Father James, played by Gleeson, is innocent. That’s the whole point, really: to hold not just the criminals responsible but also everyone else associated the Catholic Church. The film’s title, Calvary, refers to the area surrounding the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, and it’s a pretty on-the-nose metaphor for McDonagh’s story, about a soon-to-be martyred man and the community he’s trying to save, but who are so wrapped up in their own lives and problems that they’re apathetic to their potential savior’s plight.
Dour? Yes, well, somewhat. John Michael McDonagh doesn’t seem to know how to make a movie without injecting some honest humor, and Brendan Gleeson plays a character too principled and compassionate to let his looming fate get him down entirely. He’s still available to care for his troubled daughter (Kelly Reilly), snark at his annoying fellow priest (David Wilmot), offer uphill counsel to an unapologetic white-collar criminal (Dylan Moran), try to seal the rift between a cuckold and his philandering wife (Chris O’Dowd and Orla O’Rourke), acquire a handgun for a reclusive American author (M. Emmet Walsh) and trade pointed barbs with an atheistic doctor (Aiden Gillen). Even though one of those people is probably planning to kill him, Father James has a job to do, and only so much time left to do it.
McDonagh’s sprawling cast makes the most of their tapestried vignettes, each one an actor’s showcase and a pointed metaphor for the plight of the church, the clergy, the straying flock and a modern world that may have outgrown antiquated notions of morality and Catholic dogma. Although his message sometimes comes across as heavy-handed (again, just look at the title), Calvary never gets so deep into its messaging that the formal story and its central, disturbing mystery get lost for very long. The walls are closing around Father James, and whether he pushes back or in the end lets himself be crushed, he’s still a bastion of goodness for a modern era: understanding of contemporary complications but somehow able to offer a strong moral foundation for a community that may not deserve one.
Still, intriguing or not, that plot would simply be too forceful and metaphoric were it not for Gleeson’s performance, which strikes just the right balance between amused detachment and genuine sympathy, and selflessness without sacrificing his sense of self. As with John Michael McDonagh’s previous film, The Guard, the filmmaker’s latest is a character piece with genre trappings, anchored by a leading man with more to play with than the typical mystery protagonist. Brendan Gleeson turns in a characteristically exceptional, layered performance with as much moral significance as distinct individual detail, because Father James isn’t just a figurehead for a storyteller's greater message: he’s a complex, likable man thrust into a position where he’s going to stand in for the Catholic Church whether he likes it or not. That he may actually be up to the challenge makes him all the more inspirational.