John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary covers a lot of ground. What makes the film special is how McDonagh has been able to create a film that will play differently to various audiences. On one side it’s an anti Church film which lambasts the clergy for its child abuse, while on the other it’s a strong defence of how faith and religious belief can pull you through dark times. At the centre of all this is Brendan Gleeson, who gives a powerful performance. Gleeson tackles comedy and drama here, delivering work that is bold and brash, while also being incredibly emotive. The burly actor makes it all very believable as a menagerie of off-beat characters circle around him.
Calvary opens with Gleeson’s Father Lavelle sitting in a confessional box, a mystery confessor enters and tells the priest how he was abused as a child. The man then informs Lavelle that he is going to kill him in one week, not because is is guilty of any crime, but because he is an upstanding pillar of the community. The rest of the film follows Lavelle as he tries to get his life in order and re-connect with his estranged daughter (Kelly Reilly),while also trying to help the odd-ball residents of the small Irish town where he lives. McDonagh’s film shows a changing Ireland, one that is far the stereotypical look at the Emerald Isle. It shows a country moving forward, but one that is unable to cope under the shadow of the Catholicism, while also embracing a multi-ethnic way of living. The film is populated my a variety of odd-ball characters, all played by familiar faces: Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, M.Emmet Walsh, Dylan Moran and Domhnall Gleeson. They all add something to the mix as a list of suspects who may want to kill Lavelle. All the actors deliver strong work, bringing quirks and subtext to their supporting roles.
Another thing that makes Calvary very special is the visuals. The film is an emotive drama with dark humour, but McDonagh gives the film scope, filling the frame with some very impressive countryside. This could easily have been a flat film that relied on its (admittedly impressive) script, but McDonagh opens it up, making it feel epic and look beautiful.
Calvary is a hard-edged dark comedy that has many subtexts bubbling beneath its surface. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh lets them stay there, refusing to opt for the easy choice of spoon-feeding his audience. Much like faith (the focal point of the film), you get out of it what you bring in.