A Lone Holy Man in the Unholy, Wild West of Ireland
Written on 08/26/14, film first viewed by author on 08/21/2014
If this author recalls correctly, there is an article, book, or some other readable titled “The Wild West of Ireland” that appears in the background of John Michael McDonagh‘s latest picture, Calvary. Undoubtedly not a coincidence, this title might be a cheeky wink at a crossing of genres that McDonagh pulls off in dark splendor.
Calvary is absolutely, first and foremost, a hard-hitting drama, an unforgiving observation of modern day Christianity, as a clergyman, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), is constantly pitted against unrepentant sinners and unbelievers. Around every corner of the small, Irish community, the good Father James is tempted to unleash his inner demons as he is constantly antagonized by an atheist doctor (Aiden Gillen), a promiscuous housewife (Orla O’Rourke), a hot-headed immigrant (Isaach de Bankole), a macabre aristocrat (Dylan Moran), and many others. Most daunting of all, a mysterious man promises to kill Father James within a week’s time during a confession that opens the movie like an attention-grabbing slap in the face. At times, a pinch of dark comedy can be tasted when it floats to the top. Of course, it is the kind of comedy that won’t leave one rolling in the aisles. It is a kind of comedy that sends a sudden smirk across the lips when a cruel play on words is uttered by one of the many bitter characters, or when an occurrence of irony is suddenly realized. The real treat for anyone familiar with film genres is Calvary’s tendency to feel like an old Spaghetti Western, not so much in the gritty, sweaty, Cinemascope-ic style of Sergio Leone, but in the themes and character archetypes.
Father James is like “the old killer” (metaphorically, of course), a hired hand for the Roman Catholic Church, whose job is to do a battle of wits with the sinful and defend the Christian faith. His parish is in the middle of an isolated community where an undertone of violence, hatred, and pessimism constantly boils up towards the brim. It is a place where people of ill-fate seem to run away to, even Father James himself. Just like the “men with no names” of Leone, Father James is troubled by a rocky past, personified by the reappearance of his suicidal daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). Fiona not only brings Father James’ past closer to the front of the story, but she also ups the number of tasks on her father’s list. She is another soul to save, and certainly the most important soul to him.
On top of his own soul and faith being threatened, Father James’ very life becomes at stake, and he is forced to put down the Bible and actually pick up a gun, barrowed from a policeman. This becomes one of the great devices McDonagh uses to keep the audience engaged, the question of: “When will this priest actually use the gun?”. Another incite of intrigue is that Father James actually knows exactly who the man is that promises to kill him, but thanks to his feeling of duty to keep confessions confidential, he never reveals the man’s name to anyone, creating a great “who-done-it” (before the fact, interestingly) up until the very end. Though not as original, McDonagh also takes advantage of the Ticking Time Bomb Device (though not literally) by having the wannabe killer announce to Father James when he intends to kill him. The days are kept track of by title overlays that tell the day of the week as it dwindles. A keen audience member soon gets sucked into keeping track of the protagonist’s passing days and nights.
What tends to be somewhat irksome in an otherwise brilliant script is the protagonist thinking he is actually in a film or play by blatantly saying things like “opening line”, and “third act revelation”. Lines like that threaten to pull someone out of a story; the writer’s cheekiness threatens to undermine his plot if it is pushed too hard in that direction. The dialogue also has a tendency to be very heavy with one agenda: being a platform for a constant debate over the Catholic Church’s place in modern society. It seems as though everyone in the Irish community takes a jab at Father James for being a crusader for a “dying superstition”, though Ireland is, in fact, a very Catholic country. Also, one rarely hears beefs on religion being brought up in everyday small talk, usually out of want to quell an argument in the first place. These make the conversations in Calvary seem unrealistic at times, but it stands to reason that these words could be seen as actions, as if they are physical attacks, worse than punches or gunshots, thrown at Father James.
One more character that appears in Calvary, subtle yet powerful, is the Irish landscape, beautifully photographed by Larry Smith. Not just backgrounds or establishing shots, the hills, cliffs, and shores engulf the entire cast into a realm of predetermination. There is just as much grace as there is doom in the grass and air, gray skies over green bluffs. It is a place that intends to do what the very film does, romance and ensnare. There, modern civilization attempts to make its ugly, human mark in a land that was once ruled by something primitive, ominous, Druidic. Consequently, it makes for a twisted mix, great for the audience, bad for the characters’ lives. It is as if Father James was sent on a suicide mission by God, a holy man in an unholy place, defeated long before he could start.
A fitting title Calvary is after all.