Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Calvary

 Up to this point, I can't name a movie by Martin or John Michael McDonagh that I haven't really enjoyed. Martin transitioned from playwright to filmmaker with the raucous yet melancholic In Bruges, and followed that with Seven Psychopaths, a quasi-Adaptation for crime movies. John Michael's debut was The Guard, which you may remember made my "Best Of" list a few years ago. His newest film, Calvary, is in no way as funny as The Guard, nor should it be: Calvary is a meditation on faith among the faithless, and when the laughs come, they're tinged with bitterness. Like The Guard and, in many ways, In Bruges, McDonagh's latest rests on the mighty shoulders of Brendan Gleeson.

 Gleeson plays Father James, a Catholic priest living in a small, coastal town in Ireland. The film begins as he sits down to take confession, and as seems to be the fashion for McDonagh, the first line is a doozy. I'm not going to tell you what it is, but you might want to have the subtitles turned on, because the thick accent might cause you not to hear the provocative statement from our antagonist. If you really listen, you can make out who it is, but at the outset of the film, we aren't supposed to know the identity of the man who was molested as a child by a Catholic priest. It wasn't Father James, but this man is going to kill him anyway, to make a point. To him, it doesn't matter if someone kills a bad priest, but if you murder a good one, somebody will notice. He gives James seven days to put his affairs in order, and then meet on the beach to be executed.

 Calvary is not so much a mystery about who is going to kill the Father and whether he can stop it - James seems resolved to his fate, and even if we're not sure, I'm reasonably certain he knows who it is immediately*. The rest of Calvary, broken into days, revolves around his (mostly futile) attempts to help the people in the community. Many of them have abandoned God and have no faith in the church anymore - the molestation scandal weighs heavily as a subtext in the film - to the point where they are openly hostile to him. Veronica Brennan (Orla O'Rourke) is cheating on her husband Jack (Chris O'Dowd) with Simon (Isaach De Bankol√©), who might be beating her. When James confronts Simon, he threatens the Father, and Veronica rebukes his offer to help. She likes it, and Jack doesn't seem to care at all. Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is a wealthy man who likes to flaunt his wealth, and taunts Father James with promises of donations, in the hopes that philanthropy might help with his depression. Father Leary (David Wilmot) makes inappropriate comments, and doesn't seem to understand his role in the church.

 The closest thing James has to friends in the town are Dr. Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen), an Atheist who regales the Father with horrible stories of human suffering, and The Writer (M. Emmet Walsh), an American who lives in a shack near the sea, romanticizing the notion of suicide in his advanced age. Into this mess enters his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), whose failed suicide brings her to his home for care. James wasn't always a Catholic priest, as we discover, and his decision to take up a calling after the death of his wife is a sore point between father and daughter. Still, she loves him, and he loves her, but James has no intention of sharing with Fiona what's in store for him. He remains stoic about what he feels is inevitable, and will suffer the indifference of the town to his very existence if it means he can reach one person by the end.

 Calvary is not an easy film to watch: it's a cascade of cruelty, a bitterly funny one at times, but nevertheless a downbeat film punctuated with small moments of genuine human emotion. One of the stories that Dr. Harte tells, during a drunken night at the bar, is so dark, so evil that it causes James to angrily exclaim "why did you tell me that?" It's as though the entire town is conspiring to drive him out, to make him crack, to be what they want all of Catholicism to represent. His church is burnt to the ground: was it the mystery assailant, or just someone else trying to get a rise out of James? Why would someone murder his dog? There's a moment between Gleeson and his real life son, Domhnall, playing a murderer in prison who asks to speak to Father James that's chilling. He shows to reticence, no shades of guilt, only a frustration that he can't remember what he did with his last victim.

 There might be a misstep here or there in Calvary, particularly with James, Simon, and a barkeep late in the film that seems gratuitously violent. A drunken Michael pissing on his art collection goes on a little too long, and subplot involving Leo (Owen Sharpe), the lover / john of Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon) seems superfluous. Father Leary and Milo (Killian Scott) are underdeveloped characters for most of the film, but it's not the sort of thing that really hurts Calvary. The film is particularly interested in the way that Father James weathers this abuse, this distrust, and how he wants to make things better, one way or the other. It's another impressive performance from Brendan Gleeson, who continues to be an actor worth every moment of your attention. Kelly Reilly is also very good, as the one other sympathetic character in the film. This is not to say that the rest of the cast aren't good, but many of their characters are reprehensible in their words and actions that it's hard to like them.

 Calvary is not a film for everyone, even if it is a fine film indeed. You won't laugh the same way you did with The Guard, which is a film you should already be on your way to watching, if you haven't. Calvary is a test, a less explicit but by no means less vicious attack on human decency, the likes of which are reminiscent of a Lars von Trier film. It's a powerful film, but a painful one, not without its flaws, but most definitely an experience worth undertaking. If you're willing to peer into the heart of darkness to see if a glimmer of light even exists.

* Watching the film a second time, and knowing who the killer is, adds an extra layer to how James interacts with the character throughout Calvary, and while he tells his superior that he thinks he knows who it is, I'm positive that's a ruse to prevent the Catholic church from trying to stop it from happening.

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