Director: John Michael McDonagh
Runtime: 100 minutes
The opening scene of Calvary gives off the feel of an Agatha Christie or Alfred Hitchcock mystery-thriller. In a static close-up, we see Father James (Brendan Gleeson) hear a confession from an unseen man, who threatens to kill the priest in a week. His motivation? Retribution for the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest as a child. His reasoning in targeting Father James? A bit of ironic brutality. He intends to kill an innocent priest because it will make more of a statement (also: the man who abused him has passed away).
We don't know who the man making the threat is, but writer/director John Michael McDonagh has other things on his mind. Calvary is an anti-whodunnit in the vein of the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The answer will come, but what matters is the exploration of the protagonist and the world around him. That's not to say that the end result isn't important, but it's simply not the reason to see McDonagh's sophomore effort. By turning inward, the director is actually able to work with a bigger and more thematically ambitious canvas, even though he falters along the way.
Mr. McDonagh is the brother of In Bruges mastermind Martin McDonagh, and he certainly exhibits a similar worldview to his Oscar-winning sibling. However, the shadow cast by In Bruges was long, and neither of the McDonaghs have surpassed it to date. Yet where Martin regressed a bit with sophomore feature Seven Psychopaths, John Michael has made massive improvements on round two in the director's chair. His debut, 2011's The Guard, was an amiable, yet rather clunky debut that came off as In Bruges-lite.
Calvary, by contrast, possesses a much more distinct voice. McDonagh sheds the winking, tongue-in-cheek dark humor, and takes on something much more sincere. That's not to say that there aren't some blackly funny ingredients in the mix. They remain, but they're simply toned down, as they've been diluted by a more sobering look at life, death, and faith.
And even though McDonagh still treads too lightly on certain facets of his characters' backgrounds and motivations, his storytelling has matured beautifully. The film is filled with gorgeous photography of rural Ireland (courtesy of the great Larry Smith), and one can practically feel the soft light trickling through the grey skies and the winds coming off of the ocean.
It would be tempting to label Calvary as a stealth advertisement by Ireland's board of tourism, were it not for the intimate relationships that take up the bulk of the runtime. We learn early on that Father James actually knows who his future assassin is, yet he refrains from going to the police. Instead, he does his best to tidy up his affairs, which in his case means tending to the messy lives of some of the more troubled and contentious folk in town, along with his recently-arrived daughter Fiona (from before he entered the priesthood, and played by Kelly Reilly).
Mr. Gleeson, as always, brings a understated gravitas to the role. Though he goes out of his way to call upon parishioners, Father James does his best to maintain the same demeanor he displays in the confessional. Yet tensions are running higher than he realized, and bit by bit, the facade on Gleeson's bearded, ruddy face starts showing its first cracks. Gleeson has worked with both McDonagh brothers previously, and he remains an ideal fit for both styles of writing and directing. He can be playful and gentle, like he is with his daughter or the troublesome altar boy, and he can be compassionate and weather the storm of aggressive teasing that comes from some of the other men in the village. Regardless of the relationship, everyone views James as a symbol of the Church at large, for better and for worse.
Though Calvary is set in a very small Irish town, it acts as a social and religious microcosm of the whole Emerald Isle. The film was made on the heels of widespread turmoil in both Ireland's banks and in its Catholic Churches. Times are hard, and even the Catholic faith, a comfort for so many, has had its reputation tarnished, and its trust violated.
McDonagh never pontificates on these issues, and keeps them almost entirely as subtext, which is mostly beneficial. Yet by the time the promise of the first scene comes full circle, Calvary's handling of a fascinating psychological dilemma comes up a bit short. McDonagh traverses the uncomfortable territory with success for so long, and it's frustrating to see him flinch right as he gets to the most sensitive and personal conflict in the film.
Though Calvary leaves one with a compelling portrait of Ireland, it doesn't quite stick the landing when it comes to its own plot. The set up is a great entry point for a balanced character study, but it also gets in the way one it's time for things to wrap up. The conclusion certainly doesn't derail the film, but it does ensure that Calvary lands short of the true greatness that was clearly in its grasp. McDonagh's sophomore film is a major step forward, and a legitimately strong film, but the failing of the finale only drives home the notion that the director was so close to making his first great film. Instead, he'll have to settle for Calvary being his first very good film. That's nothing to sniff at, but it's the equivalent of getting a B+ on an exam and finding out that you were only one or two questions away from getting an A or A-.