Monday, December 29, 2014

CALVARY Is a Sweeping Cinematic Elegy


Father James: I think there's too much talk about sins, and not enough about virtues.
Fiona: What would be your number one?
Father James: I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.

- From writer/director John Michael McDonagh, CALVARY is a darkly funny, elegiac, and downright badass film. Set in a small Irish town where everyone knows everyone, the film opens with a stunning scene: local priest Father James (the great Brendan Gleeson) sits in his confessional booth, listening as an unseen man states his intent to kill him in one week's time. Why? Because the man was molested by a priest as a child, and now he feels that someone must suffer for the sins of the Church. He doesn't want to kill a bad priest, because few would take note. Instead, he wants to kill a good priest, a good man like Father James. That, he feels, would be a meaningful sacrifice. From there, the film follows Father James through the next seven days - and as he interacts with the various locals (many of whom are having some sort of crisis of faith), our list of potential suspects for the would-be murderer grows. The film is only part mystery though. It's also a meditation on faith and sin. Father James' struggle is not just to avoid being murdered, but to avoid what that murder would represent: the death of a community, of a faith, of a way of life. As James tries to make peace with his life, with his congregants, with his formerly-estranged daughter - we come to see him for what he is: the last good priest. He's the last bastion of what his faith could have been had it not all been flushed away by lies and sin and corruption. It's a hell of a story, and a hell of a film.

John Michael McDonagh clearly shares his brother Martin's (In Bruges) knack for beautifully-written, bitingly funny, eminently quotable dialogue. There is a wonderful poetry to the script of this film, and it's a joy to listen to the witticisms and observations that are spoken by these characters. At the same time, the film looks incredible. Never have I wanted to visit Ireland so badly as I have while watching CALVARY. Sweeping views of the green Irish countryside, epic shots of the crashing waves along the shoreline, and many smaller, more personal moments that are also impeccably framed and only accentuate the film's drama and humor.

The anchor of this film is undoubtedly Gleeson. What a performance. Gleeson delivers in so many ways as Father James, making him an incredibly human, multifaceted character. James is a good man, but he's also got a dark past that haunts him. He steadfastly believes in the good that the church can do, but his eyes are also open to the rot that infects it. There's no question that the film paints James as sort of a Christ-like figure, but that in no way detracts from the raw humanity of the character. What the film does do is make James' plight about something bigger than just him. And we see that weight of responsibility, that burden in Gleeson's narrowed eyes as he walks the beach, as he converses with person after person who seems to have lost their faith. James is a man of the people - he hangs at the local pub, cracks jokes with kids, and is accepting of all types. He is a simple man in many ways: he believes in goodness, and forgiveness, and that people can change (in one of the film's most powerful scenes, he goes to visit an old student who's been locked away for murder, praying for some semblance of remorse or hope for redemption). But he faces a world that seems to corrupt that ethos on an all-too-regular basis. Gleeson is so good here, and just super badass to boot. His singular presence, matched with McDonagh's sharp dialogue, is a match made in cinematic heaven.

The rest of the cast is great, filled with fine actors who collectively paint a vivid portrait of a town, and of a way of life, on its last legs. Game of Thrones' Aidan Gillen is fantastic as a hedonistic, atheist doctor who gets a rise out of antagonizing Father James and his beliefs. M. Emmet Walsh is fantastic as an aging writer planning for his looming death. Dylan Moran is memorably smarmy as a millionaire who finds no pleasure in people, possessions, or anything at all. Chris O'Dowd shows real dramatic chops as a troubled man whose wife is cheating on him. Domhnall Gleeson (who I just realized is the son of Brendan, and who is having a banner year) is disturbingly twisted (his M.O. these days) as the aforementioned unrepentant killer. And Kelly Reilly is a real standout as James' back-in-town daughter, Fiona, who returns to her father's care after a failed suicide attempt.

As someone who's fascinated by religion, and the role of religion in modern society, I couldn't help but get really caught up on the meaning and significance of this film. It helps that the movie is so thoughtful and witty in its musings about the church. It's funny, I've known many religious leaders who were good. People who consoled the sick, helped grieving families, mentored children, and were, overall, the kind of people who inspire and set a good example. But how to reconcile those people - and all the good that can come from religion and faith - with all the bad? CALVARY looks closely at that quandary, serving as a mournful (but also darkly funny) eulogy for the Good Men, for the Father James of the world. The men pushed out and away from forces both internal and external. CALVARY tells the tale in grand, funny, badass, epic fashion.

My Grade: A-

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