Director: John Michael McDonaugh; Screenwriter: John Michael McDonaugh; Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Marie-Josée Croze, M. Emmett Walsh, Domhnall Gleeson; Running time: 100 minutes; Certification: 15
Director John Michael McDonaugh landed himself a critical hit in 2011 with his offbeat cop comedy The Guard. The film, starring Don Cheadle and now McDonaugh-regular Brendan Gleeson (with just two films the pair have built a director/actor relationship to rival some of the best), found an unorthodox Irish policeman teaming up with a FBI agent to bust a drug ring in the middle of rural Ireland.
While it struck a heavy chord with both audiences and critics, landing a plethora of five-star reviews and healthy ratings on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, I rather struggled to wholly warm to it. There was plenty to enjoy and be impressed by, but the story often kept me at arm’s length, watching from the sidelines rather than on the field playing. With this in mind I found myself questioning why I was enjoying watching Calvary for all the reasons I should have enjoyed The Guard, because when it comes down to it, the two films share so much.
Where Calvary does differ is tonally. The black comedy and snapping back-and-forth dialogue which McDonaugh demonstrably has such a keen ear for remains, hearkening to the work of Shane Black (particularly films like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) as it weaves and riddles through a fundamentally austere script, but the backbone remains pensive and keen to explore real issues and morals.
Gleeson’s priest is a bit like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole; he drifts through each day as his profession crumbles under a fractured and harassed society – a burning church serving as a strong allegory – while the “friends” around him distance themselves, laugh behind his back and go in for the kill all at the same time. The balance between razor-sharp wit and melancholy is perfectly judged, the seams unnoticeable, with one scene involving a young man seeking advice about how to combat his sexual frustration an amusing highlight.
The lush Irish backdrop provides a reflective, almost hypnotic canvas and a talent like Brendan Gleeson (and indeed the majority of this excellent cast – Aiden Gillen and Kelly Reilly particularly great) to bring the words to life, there’s only ever one real outcome. Things don’t always hang together; the plot, or lack thereof, sometimes gets lost within itself and isn’t always clear as to where it’s trying to go, but as we approach the unanticipated denouement everything begins to make sense. Calvary is smart, funny, interesting and sensible with some wonderful performances. Above all, it’s meaningful filmmaking.