A darkly comedic sense of humour clearly runs in the McDonagh family as after Martin McDonagh burst onto the scene with In Bruges and then Seven Psychopaths, soon followed his brother John Michael McDonagh with The Guard and now Calvary, a brilliant mix of quiet power and jet black humour.
Once again working with his Guard star Brendan Gleeson in the lead role, McDonagh’s second directorial feature follows Father James Lavelle, a peaceful Irish priest who is one day threatened during confession by one of the members of his parish. During the week’s countdown to his potential death, he reaches out to help those in need in his community as well as comforting his troubled daughter (Kelly Reilly).
Dealing, as it does, with tricky subject matter like allegations of sexual abuse in the priesthood you might think that McDonagh’s shared brand of black humour might fall over into callous bad taste, especially when you consider its shocking, frankly unprintable first words that, in one of its many self-referential moments of humour, spills over into the dialogue, “That’s certainly a startling opening line.” However, he’s an excellent writer who has a real way with words and he treats that central subject with the respect it deserves while finding plenty of humour elsewhere.
That being said it’s a far less overtly comedic effort than The Guard, with laughs coming more naturally out of everyday circumstances and small interactions than outright attempts at shocking the audience. The film manages a deft mix of small community dealings and grand symbolism with a stunningly achieved sense of impending doom as the days go on, heading towards the fated “Sunday week” in which Father Lavelle will supposedly meet his end. The close-quarters friendly banter and antagonism is beautifully complimented by sweeping shots of the Irish landscape accompanied by a primal, ominous score by Patrick Cassidy. It’s a film of stark individual moments and scenes – one in particular involving Gleeson visiting a convicted murderer, played by his real life son Domhnall is especially chilling – but one that also works completely as a whole, hinting at something significant beyond our grasp. It’s a film that’s more than the some of its parts.
Gleeson, who was downright hilarious in the director’s previous film, is perfectly cast here and gives an achingly soulful performance that’s among his best ever work, playing an instantly iconic character that’s at once believable and almost mythical as he walks through his community going about his priestly duties, seemingly unperturbed by what may await him by week’s end. Soon after its alarming opening sequence in which we stay completely focused on him as his life is threatened, it morphs into a strange little game of whodunit – or rather, “whowilldoit” – adding another dimension to the drama as we survey the various members of the community to see who’s most likely to be the culprit. There’s Aidan Gillen as the local mortician, at odds with Father Lavelle because of his atheism; Chris O’Dowd as the local butcher who likes nothing more than to conversationally mess with people in the pub; and Dylan Moran as millionaire Michael Fitzgerald who seems unsatisfied with everything in life despite his wealth, to name but a few. The reveal of the would-be assassin doesn’t entirely hold water when you consider what the person has done in the previous 90 or so minutes but it’s not enough to derail a compelling and often very funny story.
With only his second directorial effort, McDonagh has progressed leaps and bounds in terms of maturity of filmmaking with a haunting, powerful and wholly memorable film that has a vein of dark humour running through it without ever treating its central themes flippantly. It’s also a film that doesn’t judge – either its characters or, for example, the priesthood – while at the same time never shying away from dealing with things head on. That’s a tough thing to achieve but McDonagh’s film does so with aplomb. It gets you laughing and leaves you thinking, grabbing you from minute one and not letting go until its haunting final shot. Brilliant.
Calvary is released in UK cinemas on April 11th.