“An Irishman walks into a confessional” sounds like the set-up for a joke, but any semblance of fun soon dissipates from CALVARY’s opening scene. Inside, the anonymous parishioner confides in Father James (Brendan Gleeson) that, as a child, they were sexually abused by a priest. To punish the Church for this, they will kill Father James in seven days.
The clergyman – wholly decent, intelligent and compassionate - takes this news with surprising stoicism, and as he spends the next week pondering his position he keeps the threat secret and continues to interact with the locals of his remote community. As he does so, writer/director John Michael McDonagh presents us with a microcosm of an Ireland simmering with fury at its sustained and repeated betrayal at the hands of its institutions – and not only the Church. In fact, the list of grievances (bankers for example, also rate highly) is so long that the Troubles barely get a look in. It's not all grim, grey and horizontal rain, though - there's a decent smattering of gallows humour thrown in.
This is only McDonagh’s second film, and once again he's cast the hugely powerful Gleeson as the uncommon just man amongst sinners and rogues (after THE GUARD's Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a rough-around-the-edges-but-good-really local cop). Both characters feel like they’re borrowed from westerns, but if Boyle is a warped update of John T. Chance from RIO BRAVO, then Father James finds himself in a vaguely similar predicament to HIGH NOON’s Will Kane (even if he is taking his presumed fate somewhat better).
While his direction might still be sparse
and no-frills, McDonagh more than makes up for it with an astonishingly well-crafted
screenplay, which switches from warmth and levity to angst and viciousness like
it was tap dancing on a pin. Joining Gleeson are Kelly Reilly (EDEN LAKE) as James’
fragile daughter, Aiden Gillen (GAME OF THRONES) as the atheist doctor, Chris
O’Dowd (THE SAPPHIRES) as the town's allegedly wife-beating sad-sack butcher, Dylan Moran (BLACK BOOKS)
as the local landed douchebag, M. Emmett Walsh (BLOOD SIMPLE) as a crotchety
reclusive author, and more, all on fine form and giving their all for
McDonagh’s magnificent words.
This isn’t a film you need to know much about before you go in; once you're in front of it, everything is there for you, perfectly laid out, meticulously measured and expertly played out. It's a jaw-dropping piece of work, and definitely one you’ll be seeing on a lot of top ten lists come December - and beyond. When I spoke to him a few years ago, McDonagh mentioned that one of his great regrets was having his screenplay for NED KELLY (2003) mangled by the powers that be. At the rate he is becoming a master storyteller, the Australian film industry should probably be sending him a gift-wrapped copy of THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG with a note begging him to adapt it (not that he would necessarily be interested in returning to the subject, but it would be a nice gesture to send Australia's best unfilmed book his way). In the meantime, I can’t recommend CALVARY highly enough.
CALVARY is released April 11 in the UK, July 4 in Australia, and August 1 in the USA.