A priest walks into an abattoir
Art and artifice in John Michael McDonagh’s ‘Calvary’
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In the opening scene of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary (in national release 3 July), an Irish priest settles into a confessional, draws open the screen and waits for the penitent to begin his confession. An unseen voice breaks the silence: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” The priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), sits there poker-faced.
“Nothing to say?” prods the would-be penitent.
“It’s certainly a startling line,” says Father James.
“What was that?” replies the unseen man sharply. “Irony?”
We’ll come to learn that Father James is a decent man, taciturn and thoughtful. Long ago he was married; when his wife died of cancer, he found a late-life vocation. In the confessional, the stranger informs the priest that he’s decided to kill him, to avenge those injustices from so many years ago. “There’s no point in killing a bad priest,” says the man. “But killing a good one – that’d be a shock, wouldn’t it?”
He goes on to inform Father James that he’s giving him a week, and that he expects to see him on the beach, where he will do the deed, come Sunday. No great alarm seems to register on Father James’s face.
As film openings go, all this is strong enough. It’s certainly a set-up that seems made for an eventual convergence of dramatic arcs, and we know up front that we’re watching a who’s-going-to-do-it rather than a whodunnit. And yet decisions made in the service of shock value are rarely the same as those made in the service of story.
At a practical level, the scene flags problems from the outset. You feel something of its artifice. It reads in miniature as a kind of proclamation of the film’s overall intention to be “bold”. All film is pure artifice, of course, but the sense of it in Calvary, the creeping deliberation and construction behind the various set-ups, becomes problematic over the length of the film. Stylistically, Calvary plays very much as a plain realist drama, but conceptually it feels more like a stage play through which flit ideas dressed up as humans.
McDonagh wrote the screenplay for Ned Kelly (2003), which starred the late Heath Ledger. It was a muddled and unsatisfying film, though it’s hard to tell just how many of its faults lay with the writing. His first film as writer and director was The Guard (2011), an overrated comedy in search of an ending in which an uptight fish-out-of-water FBI agent (Don Cheadle) clashes with a slovenly small-town policeman (also played by Brendan Gleeson) over the course of an international drug-smuggling investigation, and throughout which the ain’t-Ireland-quirky routines are laid on a little too broadly. Like The Guard, Calvary is being marketed as a black comedy, but it’s more sombre than its predecessor.
John Michael McDonagh’s brother is Martin McDonagh, a playwright, screenwriter and director known for enormously successful plays such as The Cripple of Inishmaan and films such as In Bruges (2008). The élan with which Martin harnesses lacerating language – often a kind of brogue on speed – to plotlines that seem both gripping and surreal is apparently sui generis; Ireland has perhaps not had a voice so identifiable and coherently, comically disturbing since Flann O’Brien. Where Martin’s wit is a rapier, John Michael’s is more of a blunderbuss.
“There’s no point in killing a bad priest,” says the man. “But killing a good one – that’d be a shock, wouldn’t it?”
As such, Calvary trundles more than it skips. As Sunday approaches, we wonder whether Father James will willingly give his life for the sins of others. Meanwhile, he simply goes about his business, and we meet a rogue’s gallery of characters: mostly men and a couple of women. Most interesting of these is Father James’s fragile daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who visits from London. In what becomes the genuine emotional centre of the film, the two go for long walks and examine the father–daughter relationship.
Fiona feels that she has been on her own for a long time. As she sees it, she lost two parents: her mother to disease and her father to his “calling”. “I have suffered a terrible damnation, father,” she says, in relation to her attempts at suicide. “God is great,” says Father James quietly. “The limits of his mercy have not been set.”
The film’s other two main female characters are less well integrated. Orla O’Rourke is Veronica, a strident and one-note character who is openly cheating on her husband with the African immigrant Simon (Isaach de Bankolé). She regularly flaunts her infidelities to the long-suffering Father James, who could not, it seems, care less. Simon himself veers dangerously close to a caricature of the exotic “other”, all brooding sexuality and incipient violence. French–Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze, meanwhile, is Teresa, in Sligo to retrieve the remains of her husband, who has died in a car accident; her presence in the film feels a little peripheral.
As for the men, they’re a lively bunch of tropes. Dylan Moran plays a particularly badly drawn character: the wealthy landowner Fitzgerald, with his guns and horses and arrogance, whose attempts to rankle Father James strip his character of any potential for psychological depth. One scene, where he urinates on an expensive painting in the loveless mansion his wife and children have fled from, is simply silly.
Aidan Gillen (the conniving Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones) plays a misanthropic doctor in the local hospital. He’s the film’s mouthpiece for atheism, and like many of the other characters seems designed more as a foil for Father James than a character who feels weighted in reality.
Chris O’Dowd, Irish cinema’s current, cuddly, slightly unlikely sex symbol (Girls, Bridesmaids), is the local butcher (and cuckolded husband of Veronica) Jack Brennan. Veronica’s dalliance with Simon is an open secret in the town, so we read Jack’s glibness as a kind of defensive strategy. It doesn’t make him any less annoying, though, and lines like “I think she’s bipolar, or lactose intolerant, one of the two”, with their boom-tish punchlines, just come across as lazy comic writing.
Quirky minor characters parade past: a serial killer and cannibal, a fast-talking male prostitute, a cheeky altar boy, a grumpy old American novelist. The most interesting might be the timid, passive and ineffectual Father Timothy (David Wilmot), who shares the parish rectory with Father James. He is not a man of ideas and seems barely a man of the cloth. A study in bewilderment, he somehow feels a little more anchored in dramatic believability than many of the other characters.
At the centre of it all, Father James holds his moral balance, not knowing whether these are really his last days. In High Noon (1952), this happened for Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) over a matter of mere hours. Tonally, the films are similar in this ticking-clock regard. Cooper played the anxiety very close to the surface. Brendan Gleeson buries it a little further down, beneath what looks like Father James’s weary anger. The real tension here is that, whereas Cooper desperately wanted to live through his impending ordeal, McDonagh leaves hanging the question of whether Father James wants to live or die.
Andrew Dominik made a masterpiece of this same hanging question in his great The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), in which Brad Pitt’s Jesse James is like a haunted mystic ready to hand in his reins in a kind of suicide-by-proxy at the hands of Robert Ford. The Assassination of Jesse James had a grand singularity of purpose, and its construction was majestic. Brendan Gleeson is a fine and beautiful actor, and his existential journey here is a marvel of performance. But the film simply feels laboured, and its philosophical explorations are clouded and hampered by its essential theatricality. Most of the main players come together at one time or another in the local pub. The device inadvertently exposes Calvary’s central flaw: it feels like a stage play that has tried to transcend its origins, and failed.
Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012).