16 May 2014


There are a couple of reasons why Hollywood churned out so many Westerns between the 1940s and the early 1960s. Aside from being cheap to produce and easy to market, Westerns could be seen as uniquely American movies, drawing from their own nascent frontier mythology. The genre has since gone into something of a decline since then, (the most notable Westerns of recent years being revisionist genre-splosions like Django Unchained or high-profile failures like Cowboys & Aliens or The Lone Ranger) but are those tropes still uniquely American.

Over the course of two feature films, writer and director John Michael McDonagh has made a convincing case that Ireland is the modern Wild West. But while The Guard was a wry, Western-flavoured parody of buddy cop movies, Calvary comes off as a dark High Noon of the soul. It opens spectacularly, with Catholic priest James Lavelle taking confession from a man who promises to murder him, as an innocent representative of a corrupt church, in seven days' time. Father James knows exactly who his would-be assassin is, but like Marshal Will Kane before him, he finds little solace or support from the parishioners of his small town in his remaining week on Earth.

Absolute good and evil are tricky, intractable concepts for a serious drama to tackle, especially with a broader context of organised religion looming over the action. There's an absolute evil going on under the Catholic church's protection, in the wake of revelations about historical child abuse, and McDonagh absolutely addresses it head-on, but the protagonist exists within and without that corruption. It's not a film about absolutism, or absolution, but it's definitely not given to understatement, and its strength is in eliciting strong reactions all the same.

Brendan Gleeson, who is just knocking it out of the park every single time he works with one of the McDonagh lads, is the calm heart amidst an overwhelming tidal wave of... shit. (In any other film, it would be tempting to say sin.) Gleeson is such an empathetic screen presence, and he's at the peak of his powers as Father James. The film takes place over a week and to anyone who's up on their New Testament, the title should have obvious implications about what kind of week he has- he's witty and flippant about some of the scrotes in his community early on, but his front is gradually eroded as the onslaught continues.

There's an army of great supporting players too, many of them seemingly having signed up for the chance to indulge in the kind of verbal sparring and philosophical mastication that McDonagh writes so well, even for a minimal amount of screen time. Kelly Reilly plays James' daughter Fiona, the only character who literally sees the priest as a father, and their scenes together are touching. But elsewhere, Aidan Gillen is utterly insidious as a narcissistic atheist, Chris O'Dowd is cast against type as a depressed cuckold, Dylan Moran is begging for a good hard slap as a banker who simultaneously revels and despairs in his own corpulence and Brendan's son Domhnall Gleeson makes an unforgettable appearance in which he plays like a more pathetic Hannibal Lecter.

Of course, the film saves the best of these two-hander scenes for the very end, when Sunday finally rolls around again. Following this blistering finale, the effect of the credits rolling is anything but relieving. If anything, this is when McDonagh really shows up the inadequacy of the church and its platitudes in this world. More importantly, he puts his foot down- not to accelerate, but to fully knock the wind out of you; to conclusively dominate your thoughts for the days and weeks after seeing the film; to apparently draw a line under The Guard as "the early funny one" in this screenwriter's career. The script is never cynical, but it's powerfully disturbing, and entirely excellent.

Calvary is darkly funny at times, but mostly, it's darkly dark. Brendan Gleeson gives a commanding performance from a script that commands both pathos and balance. There's none of The Guard's irony in evoking Western tropes and signifiers, because this time there's a clear and present recognition that Westerns, on a thematic and philosophical level, are about the end of things. It's far and away the film of the year so far, but I'm not entirely sure if I'll ever be ready to see it again.

Calvary is showing at the ARC cinema in Stockton until Thursday 22 May and in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Calvary, why not leave a comment below? After you've seen it, I recommend this interview with John Michael McDonagh over on Den of Geek (contains spoilers)

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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