The Guard director John Michael McDonagh has reunited with the film’s star, Brendan Gleeson, for the wickedly dark Irish black comedy, Calvary. All of the movies horribleness is intertwined intelligently with a callous humour that does not go unnoticed, but it is McDonagh’s skill of changing the tone and nature of the piece so sharply, from cold and heartless to funny, and even in moments, touching, is Calvary’s greatest strength.
Gleeson plays Father James, a well-respected priest in the Irish town, Sligo, who came to his position late in life following the death of his wife. Whilst conducting confession one day, James has his life threatened by a well-known member of his parish who tells the priest the time and place of his impending death, and despite knowing the identity of the man in question, refuses to reveal it to anybody. What follows is an examination of Father James’ life, dissecting the lives of the residents of what, on the face of it, seems a quiet, uneventful town, but like the priest himself, not all is what it seems.
Calvary begins as it means to go on: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” A shocking opening line that leaves you with a bad taste in the mouth, but certainly grabs your attention like a punch to the face. The film is not for the faint-hearted; it is not afraid to touch upon controversial issues, such as the history of pedophilia within the Catholic Church, but in fact keeps such ideas close to its core. Gleeson is masterful as Father James; seemingly good at heart, principled and true to the cause, he himself is a man with a troubled past – one that, as the film unravels, we learn more of.
The town itself is full of different characters, all with problems, whether that be James’ own depressed daughter (Kelly Reilly), the arrogant, yet lonely, local millionaire (Dylan Moran), or the butcher whose marriage has fallen apart (Chris O’Dowd). There is a wickedness to proceedings – whether that be shown through a quick jibe, a sharp look, or, more bluntly, the burning down of the local church – but it is always present, and very unnerving.
The film’s intelligence lies in its mystery. Not only are you wanting to know who has threatened James, but why will he not reveal his identity? Has the priest, like many in the town, got something dark to hide? Questions over the importance of religion, love, life and death are a-plenty, and the films ending – which leaves the audience much to ponder – is as shockingly poignant as any other moment in Calvary’s one hour and forty minutes of running time.
This will not be to everyone’s liking, and with its limited release it will not get the publicity it deserves, but McDonagh has produced one of 2014’s most powerful films, epitomised by a fantastic performance from Gleeson, a sinister script, and a disorientating mysteriousness to proceedings.