Tuesday, May 5, 2015


Directed by John Michael McDonagh.

Brendan Gleeson
Chris O'Dowd
Kelly Reilly
Domnhall Gleeson
Aidan Gillen
Dylan Moran
Isaach de Bankole
David Wilmot
Orla O'Rourke
M. Emmet Walsh

When the very first words of a movie are "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old," you instinctively brace yourself for whatever is to follow. The question becomes whether or not that's enough to protect you. The answer is no, it's not. That brings up another question. Will you like what it does to you? This is all predicated on your decision to actually keep watching, of course. You're only about five seconds in. You soldier on. You want to support the other person listening to this with you. That would be Father James (Gleeson). He runs the local church in a small town outside Dublin and is working the confessional. The unseen person on the other side of the booth goes on tell the story of how a priest molested him when he was an altar boy. Our first instinct is to think that Father James is the guilty party. This is reinforced by this mysterious person informing the priest that he is going to kill Father James next Sunday. We couldn't be more wrong. In fact, Father James is told he is going to be killed because he is a thoroughly good man. It would be too easy to kill a pedophile priest and no one would bat an eye, anyway. Killing a good priest would make people sit up and take notice. Father James is told he should get his affairs in order before the big day. What really ensues is that the priest goes around trying to help everyone else in town get themselves in order.

We follow Father James from place to place around town offering counsel, trying to help anyone he can. He also speaks to his fellow clergy about the death threat he's received. We learn that Father James recognizes whose voice it was. By saying he's not sure if this person would carry out this plan means Father James is admitting he's got something serious to worry about. We feel for the guy as he is clearly having a tough time dealing with this situation. Whatever he is saying to the locals is falling on deaf ears. His date with destiny is fast approaching and he practically refuses to take any measure to try and prevent it. As the movie progresses, his own psyche becomes more and more fragile, yet his faith never seems to waiver. It's a role requiring both inward and outward contemplation. He's a man who can't help but look after the welfare of others. Brendan Gleeson wonderfully conveys the simmering inner turmoil that must eventually boil over and become visible to all even though they have no clue why.Those of us that know what's happening are pleading with him to take the easy way out. Just leave town. Go far away and never return. At least, that's us in the audience. Those in the movie with him who know, others in the priesthood, are not quite indifferent, but certainly incredulous that someone so bold as to make such a threat would really try to make good on it. As viewers, we are placed in the troublesome position of 'helpless bystander.' We constantly want our hero to do something other than the things he busies himself with.

Almost immediately, the movie kicks into high gear with religious antagonizing and ridicule. It comes from the very same people we witness taking communion following the ominous opening. I'm not here to defend the virtues of religion because, I'm not a fan. However, what happens here is so in-your-face, profanely dismissive, and mean-spirited, it creates a cynicism that overwhelms the movie because it goes completely unchecked. Without any sort of counterbalance we zoom past thoughtful debate and go straight to playground insults. Father James becomes the kid everyone picks on for being different. He shows up somewhere, offers his two cents on whatever situation that person is going through. That person then proceeds to give him a verbal beating. Occasionally, one accosts him wherever he is. This is certainly the case with Veronica (O'Rourke), an adulterer whom we're not entirely sure whether or not she likes it rough. She basically seeks out Father James to inform him every time she's about to spread her legs for someone. She pretty much taunts him as if to say "Whatcha gonna do about it?" Seriously, this is the worst group of parishioners, ever. A separate, at least as interesting film could be made exploring why any of these people ever bother to set foot inside of a church, let alone attending faithfully every Sunday. They are both repulsive and unrepentant.

From all of this ugliness, rises a suffocating hopelessness. That humanity is irredeemable is a sentiment that grows with each passing scene. While it's true that the behavior of the locals is increasingly vile, something quite the opposite permanently tips the scales to that side. It is the one affair of his own that Father James actually does try to get in order. He wants to clear the air between he and his daughter Fiona (Reilly) because he realizes he hasn't always been the best father to her. He struggles to reconcile this with his work in the priesthood. His desperation to explain himself to her is the first sign he's more afraid than he lets on. His subsequent breakdown merely confirms his fear. This fear is transferred to us, the viewers. We search for any signs of hope. We lunge at any little thing that appears to be the last glimmers of it. However, these are all extinguishing flames flickering out before we get there. When the movie ends, nothing is done to lift our spirits. In fact, we're dropped further in the dumps then left licking our wounds. Is Calvary a well-made and compelling film? Yes. Does Brendan Gleeson give a tremendous performance? Yes. Did I like it? No. That's an odd thing for me to write, given my history. I'm a person who tends to favor darker and/or ambiguous endings to happily ever after. I'm a fan of slasher flicks. I much prefer the nihilist ending of The Godfather Part II to the original's triumphant finale. Something about the cynicism here cuts deeper. What it says about man is far more troublesome. It is devoid of optimism. As engrossed as I became in the story, I don't think I'll be watching this one again.


  1. This just arrived on Cinemax though I'm going to see it either later this month or next month as I have other things to do including my upcoming Cannes Marathon.

  2. Gleeson was so good in this, but it was a bit slow for my liking. Good story, beautiful scenery, but I probably wouldn't watch it again either. Great review!

    1. Thanks. It did start a bit slow, but picked up nicely, I thought.

  3. This movie moved me SO MUCH. It was like a serious gut punch, and the more I reflect on it, the more I really like this. I don't think I'll ever watch it again either, but a lot of the best movies are the ones hard to stomach twice.

    1. It did move me because it was definitely a gut punch...more like a kick in the crotch, actually. It's so well made that I could see myself including it among my best of the year even though I said I didn't like it. I mean, I can recognize that the the kick in the crotch was a great kick, but the family jewels are still hurting, ya know.

  4. Beautiful review! I thought this movie was wonderful. Gleeson was amazing.

  5. Interesting perspective Wendell. I personally liked what you didn't, as I loved the mean-spirited people of this small town (especially Dylan Moran's character). I didn't see it as an attack on religion but more as sign and that his time was coming. But your point of view definitely makes sense. I'll have to give this a rewatch, you've stirred my memory up. I love the structure of it, starting of like you said with a pretty confronting scene

    1. Thanks. They're all very interesting characters. Nothing in the film is necessarily bad, but its effect on me is tough to take. The fact that it moved me to this degree is a testament to how good it is. It's not something I'm in a rush to see again. And that opening scene? Wow.

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  8. Calvary won't be for everyone, the dialogue and performances held my interest, but yes, it is a bit of a downer. The fact catholic priests listen to the sins of others could be tough on them, so in some ways I think we are being put in his shoes. I liked how it mixed the humor with truths about our society. A story as dark as this really needed the jokes to balance it out. I agree we as viewers are placed in the troublesome position of 'helpless bystander.' and constantly want our hero to do something (or just leave town)

    1. We are certainly being put in his shoes, having to slog through this with not only what that guy says, but everyone else's issues, too. It's a very dark movie. Excellently made, but very dark.