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Review: John Michael McDonagh’s Inventive, Masterful Black Comedy ‘Calvary’

Review: John Michael McDonagh's Inventive, Masterful Black Comedy 'Calvary'

Something black and acidic runs through the veins of those McDonagh brothers; there’s just something not quite right with these lads…and thank goodness for that. Playwright and younger sibling Martin McDonagh made a splash in Ireland’s theater scene with his hilarious, tart, pitch-black plays and then impressed film audiences with two wicked black comedies (“In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths”). Older bro John Michael McDonagh possesses a similar talent, and an ear for devilish dialogue, and having penned “Ned Kelly,” he made his feature-length debut with the cheeky, underrated black comedy “The Guard” (underrated internationally, that is; the film is the most successful Irish film of all time in Ireland). If you don’t know these guys, you need to remedy that immediately.

For McDonagh’s similarly irreverent, but darker sophomore effort, “Calvary,” the filmmaker reteams with his ‘Guard’ star Brendan Gleeson for an inspired story about a benevolent Irish priest tormented by the comically twisted members of his small community. Like a Chekhov-ian gun that’s presented in the first act and must go off eventually, “Calvary” begins with a confession; an unseen man tells Father James (Gleeson) he was savagely molested by members of the priesthood as a child (in typically disturbing, but comically graphic McDonagh fashion—“I first tasted semen at seven years old” is the opening line of the film). And as misguided revenge against God, this unseen man is going to kill a good person for no good reason. In fact, he’s going to kill the kind and altruistic Father James.

Shaken, but not panicked, Father James finds consolation and advice from his fellow priests and a nearby Bishop (David McSavage). And even though Father James knows the identity of the mystery man, he declines to name him to the local police inspector (Gary Lydon). Is this psycho serious about his threat to kill one week from now, of course, ironically on a Sunday? Should Father James go to the police, arm himself or find some other active way to confront the situation? Rather than making any hasty decisions, he meditates on his dilemma while tending to the members of his community.

And it’s a very odd and eccentric parish. The local butcher (Chris O’Dowd) has washed his hands of his adulterous, kinky wife (Orla O’Rourke) who keeps getting beaten up by her boyfriends (one of them played by Isaach de Bankolé). The hospital surgeon (Aiden Gillen) is a depraved, disturbed cynic; the local rich banker is a misanthropic inveterate drunk (Dylan Moran); and the aged American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) is just counting the days until his inevitable death. And this is just scraping the surface of this disturbed village.

Adding to the weight of trying to bring hope and succor to his profoundly dysfunctional flock, is the arrival of Father James’ beautiful daughter (Kelly Reilly), fresh from a recent suicide attempt (“let me guess, you made the critical mistake,” he says sarcastically of her inept side-to-side cutting technique). As the film counts down the days to the showdown on Sunday, the compassionate but wearying priest’s durable spiritual resolve begins to unravel.

Thematically rich and pointedly written, the film is a black-comedy screed on the legacy of the Catholic Church, its various sex scandals and its waning influence, and though a melancholic solemnity guides the existential second half, “Calvary” never loses its predestined focus. In fact, in its precision and control it kind of evokes a modern Bresson, if Bresson were directing a particularly wordy Samuel Beckett play. And while it becomes far less comical as it moves inexorably towards its somber, come-to-Jesus conclusion, what it loses in laughs it gains in profoundly moving drama and emotional texture (one serious scene between Gleeson and his daughter Reilly is as poignant and heartrending as anything you’ve ever witnessed in a black comedy). Reflecting soberly on mortal sin, the expiation of such iniquities, penitence, absolution and more, “Calvary” is Guinness-thick with the weight of Irish Catholic guilt and morality.

Within this crucible in which the hypocrisy of religion and the corrosive effect of the church’s history on the national consciousness come to a boil, Father James carries the burden of all transgressions of the world. He struggles with an increasing estrangement from his previously unassailable belief; what kind of God could allow such unspeakably cruel and malevolent acts to occur every single day? And he feels the sting as his venal and self-centered parishioners seemingly turn on him, their cruel gibes about God and religion starting to find their mark in the days leading up to D-day. When a final act of depredation occurs at his church, suddenly it seems that even Father James’ lifelong faith and good soul has not earned him salvation.

But nor is Father James a saint: spiritually exhausted, sarcastic and with a weakness for booze, the always-terrific Brendan Gleeson is in perfect form, effortlessly moving from comedic barb to high drama and back again (his talented son Domhnall cameos as an incarcerated psychopath to whom he gives absolution). In fact, it’s so terrifically nuanced that there’s not one bum note in the excellent ensemble cast (which also features Marie-Josee Croze, David Wilmot, Pat Shortt, Killian Scott, and Owen Sharpe).

The somber, resigned mood of the picture is also expressively captured by the photography of Larry Smith and in Patrick Cassidy’s sonorously elegiac score. An inventive whodunit in reverse, “Calvary” may not be for all audiences, with its pitch-black heart and sober existentialism not exactly commercial stuff, but its unwavering commitment to the intelligent thorniness of its themes, and the masterful control McDonagh exerts over the shifts in tone are worth cherishing, bringing it soaring close to something divine. [A-]

This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

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