Part social commentary, part Christ allegory, Calvary is a unique, almost odd, film that is so sharply written and well-acted, you’ll hardly notice the quirky editing and pontificating monologues. In fact, it just may be one of the more interesting movies I’ve seen this year.
Calvary centers around Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson, Braveheart, Harry Potter, In Bruges), the pastor of a Catholic church in a small town in Ireland. Fade in on the priest as he settles into the confessional, waiting to hear the sins of the person on the other end of the divider. It’s like any other day, except that on this particular one, Father James hears the confession for a murder that has not been committed yet: his own. The mysterious voice on the other side of the curtain is seeking atonement for being raped by a priest at a young age, and Father James will be the sacrificial lamb to call attention to these heinous deeds. The voice gives the priest one week to get his affairs in order and make his peace with God.
The story unfolds as a kind of whodunit, with Father James going about his daily duties throughout the town and meeting with the dark and sinful (albeit interesting) characters within its walls. Each new day is another chapter in Calvary, where every seemingly menial errand is slathered with a slow burn of foreboding. Told in an almost episodic fashion, Father James confronts this ominous threat by trying to help others. He confronts an abusive husband (Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaids, Girls), an adulteress and her lover, trades thoughts with an atheist doctor (Aiden Gillen, The Wire, Game of Thrones), and repairs his complicated relationship with his daughter (Kelly Reilly, Flight, Sherlock Holmes), among other encounters. During these conversations, many of which are one-on-one, we learn of Father James’ integrity and fortitude, despite his alcoholic past and the morally bankrupt people that surround him.
Will good always prevail? How does one seek forgiveness for the sins of others? Does God understand man, in all his forms and motivations? Pretty heavy stuff, but writer/director John Michael McDonagh manages to approach the subject matter with enough reverence to pack a dramatic wallop and enough wit to keep the material digestible. The banter, even under dark circumstances, is quick and bubbly in Calvary. As Chris O’Dowd’s character laments his cheating wife, he claims “she’s either bipolar or lactose-intolerant.” Its quips like these that simultaneously puzzle and tickle the audience, making Calvary a complicated, compelling affair. The acting is also top-notch. Grounded in reality by Brendon Gleason, his stoic performance allows the supporting characters to be off-kilter, so as to keep the audience on its toes.
My only real gripe with Calvary is the style in which it’s edited, jump cutting from one scene to another without much introduction or continuity. Great editing should propel the story and not detract from it. To a lesser extent, some will also take umbrage at the long monologues laden throughout Calvary. It’s composed like a play and the writing is good enough to forgive the almost pretentious “moment of shine” each character has, but it would be a larger trespass if the acting weren’t so damn good.All in all, Calvary is timely, original, and arresting, even more so upon reflection. The minor issues are far outweighed by stellar acting and the provocative questions Calvary poses, shrink-wrapped in a mystery flick.