Reviewing ‘Calvary’

Calvary, from writer/director John Michael McDonagh (brother of writer/director/playwright Martin McDonagh, creator of Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges) shares a lot in common stylistically with his brother’s previous work – an adherence to the blending of pitch-black comedy alongside drama, along with a deeply playful metatextual streak unafraid to indulge in dialogue that toes the line of unraveling the very dramatic construction we’re meant to buy into. And while John Michael doesn’t navigate the hairpin tonal shifts with the ease of his brother, some of the humor and more broadly sketched characters graze the traffic cones of believability here. He has…

Calvary, from writer/director John Michael McDonagh (brother of writer/director/playwright Martin McDonagh, creator of Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges) shares a lot in common stylistically with his brother’s previous work – an adherence to the blending of pitch-black comedy alongside drama, along with a deeply playful metatextual streak unafraid to indulge in dialogue that toes the line of unraveling the very dramatic construction we’re meant to buy into. And while John Michael doesn’t navigate the hairpin tonal shifts with the ease of his brother, some of the humor and more broadly sketched characters graze the traffic cones of believability here. He has crafted a largely compelling portrait of wilting faith in a small town anchored by Brendan Gleeson’s mesmerizing lead performance.

Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a priest informed during confession of the sexual assault sustained by one his parishioners during childhood (as an example of the film’s somber playfulness, the very first line admits this horrible transgression with Gleeson immediately responding, “Well, that’s certainly a startling opening line.”) with that same parishioner vowing to shoot Father Lavelle dead in a week’s time, arguing it makes much more of a statement to kill an innocent, genuinely good man than attain justice over a corrupt member of the clergy. Thus, the stakes are immediately established, and the rest of the film is a dirge-like march towards this pre-established end point. Over the remainder, we’re introduced to a parish that feels like it should be bracketed in quotation marks. If the people of this town aren’t openly contemptuous of Father Lavelle’s piety, their actions call its value into question directly. You have the butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who might be abusing his sultry spouse (Oria O’Rourke) who is carrying out an affair with the local mechanic (Isaach de Bankole), the atheistic local hospital employee (Aidan Gillen aka Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger), the local sheriff who openly carries out a relationship with a male prostitute, the wealthy patron whose wife and family have left him a broken wreck (Dylan Moran)… the list goes on and on. It’s enough to make one question their faith, but Gleeson’s performance at this film’s center is a towering tribute to compassion, unwavering in his support to this wounded flock even as the miseries of life accumulate unabated. The arrival of his daughter to town (the luminous Kelly Reilly) provides a temporary break in the film’s perennial cloud cover, but even she is coming off the heels of a failed suicide attempt.

As unrelentingly morose as this might sound, it’s absolutely compelling filmmaking. Each performer has come to play, with some revealing unseen dimensions to their cinematic resume (O’Dowd and Moran specifically, as comedians by trade, do phenomenal work) and the film unfurls in a series of dynamic interactions between this pastor and the community he serves (including a corker of a scene between Gleeson and his son Domnhall as a local youth jailed for heinous deeds). Even as it appears the moral fabric of this town, and by extension the world at large, is irreparably frayed, Gleeson stands resolute in the face of this misery.

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Tom Fuchs is a Milwaukee-based film writer whose early love for cinema has grown into a happy obsession. He graduated with honors in Film Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has since focused on film criticism. He works closely with the Milwaukee Film Festival and has written reviews and ongoing columns for Milwaukee Magazine since 2012. In his free time, Tom enjoys spending time with his wife and dogs at home (watching movies), taking day trips to Chicago (to see movies), and reading books (about movies). You can follow him on Twitter @tjfuchs or email him at tjfuchs@gmail.com.

Reviewing ‘Calvary’

Calvary, from writer/director John Michael McDonagh (brother of writer/director/playwright Martin McDonagh, creator of Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges) shares a lot in common stylistically with his brother’s previous work – an adherence to the blending of pitch-black comedy alongside drama, along with a deeply playful metatextual streak unafraid to indulge in dialogue that toes the line of unraveling the very dramatic construction we’re meant to buy into. And while John Michael doesn’t navigate the hairpin tonal shifts with the ease of his brother, some of the humor and more broadly sketched characters graze the traffic cones of believability here. He has…

Calvary, from writer/director John Michael McDonagh (brother of writer/director/playwright Martin McDonagh, creator of Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges) shares a lot in common stylistically with his brother’s previous work – an adherence to the blending of pitch-black comedy alongside drama, along with a deeply playful metatextual streak unafraid to indulge in dialogue that toes the line of unraveling the very dramatic construction we’re meant to buy into. And while John Michael doesn’t navigate the hairpin tonal shifts with the ease of his brother, some of the humor and more broadly sketched characters graze the traffic cones of believability here. He has crafted a largely compelling portrait of wilting faith in a small town anchored by Brendan Gleeson’s mesmerizing lead performance.

Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle, a priest informed during confession of the sexual assault sustained by one his parishioners during childhood (as an example of the film’s somber playfulness, the very first line admits this horrible transgression with Gleeson immediately responding, “Well, that’s certainly a startling opening line.”) with that same parishioner vowing to shoot Father Lavelle dead in a week’s time, arguing it makes much more of a statement to kill an innocent, genuinely good man than attain justice over a corrupt member of the clergy. Thus, the stakes are immediately established, and the rest of the film is a dirge-like march towards this pre-established end point. Over the remainder, we’re introduced to a parish that feels like it should be bracketed in quotation marks. If the people of this town aren’t openly contemptuous of Father Lavelle’s piety, their actions call its value into question directly. You have the butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who might be abusing his sultry spouse (Oria O’Rourke) who is carrying out an affair with the local mechanic (Isaach de Bankole), the atheistic local hospital employee (Aidan Gillen aka Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger), the local sheriff who openly carries out a relationship with a male prostitute, the wealthy patron whose wife and family have left him a broken wreck (Dylan Moran)… the list goes on and on. It’s enough to make one question their faith, but Gleeson’s performance at this film’s center is a towering tribute to compassion, unwavering in his support to this wounded flock even as the miseries of life accumulate unabated. The arrival of his daughter to town (the luminous Kelly Reilly) provides a temporary break in the film’s perennial cloud cover, but even she is coming off the heels of a failed suicide attempt.

As unrelentingly morose as this might sound, it’s absolutely compelling filmmaking. Each performer has come to play, with some revealing unseen dimensions to their cinematic resume (O’Dowd and Moran specifically, as comedians by trade, do phenomenal work) and the film unfurls in a series of dynamic interactions between this pastor and the community he serves (including a corker of a scene between Gleeson and his son Domnhall as a local youth jailed for heinous deeds). Even as it appears the moral fabric of this town, and by extension the world at large, is irreparably frayed, Gleeson stands resolute in the face of this misery.

Comments

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Tom Fuchs is a Milwaukee-based film writer whose early love for cinema has grown into a happy obsession. He graduated with honors in Film Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has since focused on film criticism. He works closely with the Milwaukee Film Festival and has written reviews and ongoing columns for Milwaukee Magazine since 2012. In his free time, Tom enjoys spending time with his wife and dogs at home (watching movies), taking day trips to Chicago (to see movies), and reading books (about movies). You can follow him on Twitter @tjfuchs or email him at tjfuchs@gmail.com.