As the summer season winds down and Oscar buzz ramps up, September can be a dumping ground for Hollywood’s blockbuster leftovers. While mainstream cinemas may be starving for quality, people who lean towards the indie side of the equation now have the chance to check out more interesting fare. One such movie is Calvary, a darkly comic story of a priest confronting his faith in light of his eminent demise. Rich in themes, humor and exceptional performances, John Michael McDonagh’s (The Guard) second feature film is an early contender for my Top 10 of the year list.
Brendan Gleeson stars as Father James, a minister in a small Irish village. When an unknown parishioner promises to kill him for the crimes of another, James has one week to seek out the would be murderer and get his affairs in order. With his suicidal daughter back in town and a parish full of doubters and sinners who could all be the culprits, Father James has quite a week ahead.
As a long time collaborator with both of the McDonagh boys, Gleeson absolutely shines as the neighborhood priest. The denizens of his small town are each challenging in their own ways, forcing Gleeson to stretch his range. One minute, he’s chatting with a playfully depressed shut in and the next he’s dealing with an arrogant multi-millionaire. Each interaction requires a different emotional tone and Gleeson supports all of it with a controlled, grounded and intensely focused performance. Just like Patricia Arquette from Boyhood, Gleeson is my first Best Actor nominee of 2014.
And it’s a good thing Gleeson is so perfect because the plot has some issues. Much like The Guard, Calvary feels more like a collection of sketches than a cohesive story. As Gleeson moves through the town trying to put things in order, each interaction feels disconnected from the previous one. Luckily, each scene is full of fine acting, good lines and a heavy coating of gallows humor but the overall vibe feels fragmented. With some very minor adjustments, 75% of the scenes could be easily rearranged. The result is a movie with a very thin narrative drive.
Thankfully, the actors charged with coloring the world all do great work, which softens the blow of the Saturday Night Live nature of the plot construction. Personal highlights include Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) as the local butcher, David Wilmot as a timid junior minister and the exceptional Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes) as James’ troubled daughter. Despite playing to type, each supporting cast member injects personality into their roles, breathing life into the already strong script.
To use a cheesy church analogy, if Gleeson is the altar and the supporting cast members are the stained glass windows, the film’s themes are the support structure where everything is built upon. The nature of faith is explored from every possible angle. From the wealthy man hoping he can buy his way into heaven to a genuinely repentant child killer, Calvary reaches deep and mines thought provoking questions from a variety of uncomfortable sources.
As the little brother of the famed Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), John Michael has been working hard towards carving out a name of his own. Where The Guard fell short in humor, timing and story, Calvary improves in every possible aspect. Despite some jagged edges in scene construction, an award worthy performance by Gleeson, a knack for uncomfortable humor and some deeply explored themes make Calvary a top notch early fall film. Well worth seeking out in favor of multiplexes filled with summer’s leftovers.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jersey born and New York bred, Bill Tucker is a writer of short fiction, film reviews and articles across a variety of genres and media. He currently writes a regular movie column entitled “Behind the Cinematic Curtain” for Revolt Daily, contributes to a fashion blog for http://www.pop-market.com and has a number of short stories in various stages of publication. When not writing, he works as an IT Trainer for a fashion software company. He currently hangs his hat in Austin, Texas. Check out more of his work at http://www.thesurrealityproject.com.