Black Comedies often prove to be either hit, or miss. In the hands of an intelligent, funny Irishman, we fortunately get to see the better versions of that genre. However, this Irishman has an understanding of how people work and he employs that wonderfully in his works. It’s also helpful to have a veteran, Irish actor that can consistently deliver wonderful performances. Despite what the above poster says, this film isn’t “Wickedly Funny”. It has its moments, but it’s far more dramatic than it leads on. However, that’s not inherently bad either.
During confession, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) hears a lot about people that he doesn’t entirely want to know. Strange confessions are what make up most of his day, until one manages to separate itself from the others. One man claims to have been repeatedly sexually abused by a priest when he was younger, ultimately wishing that this priest were dead. Given that this priest is dead, this confessor offers up the idea of killing a good priest because it would mix things up. With that, he gives Father James a week to get his things in order and make his peace with God. Just like that, Father James’ life has turned upside down and he wants to reach out to those in his community, in the event that this threat is valid.
The first thing that Father James wants to do is see his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). Given that he’s a priest, he shouldn’t technically have a daughter, but there are many skeletons in the father’s closet. Fiona had recently attempted to kill herself, so Father James took her back to his home to care for her, as well as introduce her to the regulars. Jack (Chris O’Dowd) the meat-maker has marital issues, Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) deals with diseases and dead people, Simon (Isaach De Bankolé) and Terssa (Marie-Josee Croze) are fooling around, and many of the others around town are dealing with troubling issues. Most troubling of all for Father James, is the fact that all these men and women are questioning their faith in God and he’d rather take care of them, rather than himself. There’s no telling what will happen on that fateful Sunday, but Father James is determined to help as many people as he can.
Calvary is a bit of a mixed-bag full of great performances, character studies, religious undertones, and beautiful cinematography. It doesn’t effectively deal with everything it sets out to accomplish, but there’s more than enough to entice you in the film and it’s very well made by an experienced director that has a flair for unusual themes and dark comedy (of sorts).
Brendan Gleeson is extraordinary in Calvary, as he serves as the vessel through which we see how different people live their sinful, confusing lives. Gleeson provides more than enough subtle wit to leave you cackling, while also providing some sad truths about the life of a broken man. As a priest, he does his best to help others, but it’s clear through his fragile state that he’s the one who needs help. His interactions with Kelly Reilly are beautiful and touching, but they also reveal a lot about both of their struggles and you really get to know these flawed, wonderful characters. Gleeson gives what may arguably be his best performance and it’s certainly one that’s going to be associated with his name for the rest of his life.
On the supporting end, there’s a plethora of actors that exhibit different flaws and thoughts on religion. Chris O’Dowd makes a funny meat-maker who’s quite cavalier about his wife’s doings and his past. Aidan Gillen’s doctor is always playing Devil’s advocate with Gleeson, as his grim and gruesome job causes him to question whether or not there’s a God. M. Emmet Walsh plays a conflicted man who’s gotten old and doesn’t find much left to live for. Isaach De Bankole has his own, conflicting views of religion and he’s one who’s very set in his ways. Dylan Morgan’s character is somewhat alarming, as he’s a young man without a cause and that can be dangerous. Even Brendan Gleeson’s real-life son, Domhnall, plays a psychotic character that represents true evil that’s present in our world. Nearly everyone is pushing back against Gleeson, which makes it all the more interesting to see how they interact.
John Michael McDonagh is either known for his comedy/thriller The Guard (which also stars a brilliant Gleeson), or for his writer/director brother, Martin McDonagh. Both have a flair for dark comedy, with Martin working on In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, but John Michael manages to capture a much darker tone with his work. Calvary is especially focused on the different aspects of humanity and how certain events may trigger us to lose/gain belief in something spiritual. His exploration of humans and their reasoning behind their beliefs is really wonderful and when paired with gorgeous Irish scenery, things only get better.
For all its commentary on humanity, religion, faith, and evil ways, Calvary can get excruciatingly dull at times. There are certain conversations that appear to have no energy and there were moments of time where I was just waiting for a conversation to end. This film could be described as a series of conversations in a few different settings, which is a total gamble. Some of the conversations work (especially because of the gorgeous backdrops), but there were a few that fell short and a few out of a handful is a lot. It’s not that I was bored with parts of the film, it’s just that there wasn’t always enough to hold my interest.
Calvary offers up one of Brendan Gleeson’s best performances, which makes this film worth the watch, given the actor’s already impressive resume. Many of the supporting performances elevate Gleeson’s work as well and writer/director John Michael McDonagh creates a truly unique atmosphere that’s often hit-or-miss. When Calvary is on, the writing accurately depicts the struggles of Gleeson’s priest, as he deals with different aspects of humanity that work against his position. When Calvary is off, things can get pretty dull. Don’t let the dullness dissuade you though, as there’s enough to enjoy and praise about this film to make it worth a watch.