CALVARY (2014)

Running Time: 100 mins.                     Rating: x Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: R

Director: John Michael McDonagh

Genre: Drama

Country: Ireland/UK

Language: English

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankole, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josee Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon, Killian Scott, Orla O’Rourke, Owen Sharpe


Ever since that disastrous choice in the Garden of Eden, the world has been going to hell.  It’s no wonder that our young people have stopped reading books and newspapers and train their smart phones not to CNN nor NY Times nor Huffington Post, but instead communicate frantically with their friends via SMS.  Not for them a great concern with the explosive Middle East, the fights in the U.S. Congress, the potential revival of the bad old Soviet Union.  With CALVARY Michael McDonagh deals with allegorical impact on the sad state of affairs, but instead of painting on the world’s canvas, he restricts himself to a tiny community on the west coast of Ireland (filmed largely in County Sligo in the town of Easkey and on Streedagh Beach).  You’d think that the diverse sort on whom he trains his lenses would be found in New York or Chicago, but no, even in a community that you could virtually count on your fingers and toes, you have a group of sad characters who for one reason or another feel lost, even suicidal.

Nor does Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) ultimately believe he can help them, and if the town priest, even after consulting with the bishop (David McSavage) has no counsel to give, what good is he to others and, of course, to himself?  In a towering performance cast in a slow-moving picture of a lost world, Brendan Gleeson holds court as a priest who is a reformed alcoholic who may find himself off the wagon and a townspeople who to a great extent have lost faith in the Church and in the beneficence or even existence of God.

CALVARY is the second of a trilogy that began with THE GUARD, Ireland’s most successful indie ever, a comic take about a policeman in County Galway (also played by Gleeson) who has seen enough of the world to know that there is not much too it, and who teams up with a humorless FBI agent in pursuit of a drug ring. CALVARY opens with a bang as an unknown parishioner in the confessional with Father James announces his plan to kill the priest in seven days not because he was the priest who sexually abused him many years earlier (“I first tasted semen at the age of seven”) but because he is innocent—and the murder of an innocent priest will afford greater publicity than revenge against the guilty.

During his rounds, Father James, who at one point borrows a gun for self-defense, which he considers justifiable killing, gets a sense of the dark mood of his parishioners.  James Brennan, a butcher (Chris O’Dowd) is suspected of beating his slutty wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), but her injuries may have been caused by Simon (Isaach de Bankole), her lover from the Ivory Coast.  He catches a policeman (Gary Lyndon) having sex with a male hooker (Owen Sharpe)—who talks like an Italian-American gangster from 1970s films.  He listens to Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen) spout atheistic views while puffing on a cigarette, a youth who has not “the gift of gab” and is unable to “make it” with any woman (he wants to join the army to kill people in revenge), and especially a rich fellow, Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), whose wife and kids have left him and who is so detached from his money that he urinates on an expensive painting.

When you watch each of these characters being interviewed, you might think of the movie riffs on speed-dating in which each guy gets a limited time to define himself and moves on to the next—except that Father James hears deadly serious and mordant cries of despair.

In his stellar performance Gleeson expresses a range of emotion: he’s tough, he’s resigned, he drinks and curses, he lashes out physically even shooting up a bar. By the time he visits a prisoner (Domhnall Gleeson—his son in real life) who has been convicted of rape, murder and cannibalism, he’s ready to throw in the towel.

Larry Smith films in widescreen along the wind-swept west coast of Ireland, and despite using digital technology rather than real film, CALVARY looks sumptuous.  Whatever you think of the ideas graphically illustrated, you will be unable to take your eyes off Gleeson—who will hopefully be remembered during end-year awards season, an actor incapable of playing a false note.


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