Monday, August 11, 2014

Calvary (***1/2)

Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh


The Vatican sits in Rome, but no culture is more tightly linked or more implicated by the Catholic Church than the Irish. A large part of their existence is dictated by the strict ideals of this incredibly archaic institution. It doesn't help that they're surrounded by the islands of the United Kingdom and their largely Protestant populations alienating them. The ripples of Catholicism often find their way through the music and films and literature of the Irish, if even tangentially. It has a pretty prevalent presence in the work of the McDonagh brothers. Martin is an award-winning playwright, and a filmmaker who has directed at least one modern classic, In Bruges. His brother, John Michael, is a filmmaker as well, whose second film, Calvary is the most direct reference to the religious practice that either of them has ever made. It's protagonist is played by Brendan Gleeson, who was the star of In Bruges and John Michael's first film, The Guard, and provides a steady, actorly dynamic to this particularly bleak film. The film is not atheist porn, spouting Christopher Hitchins rhetoric about the evils of having faith, but instead a much more measured documentation of the rotting fish that the Catholic church is quickly becoming.

Gleeson plays a priest named Father James. In the opening scene, he sits in the confessional booth as a sinner enters preparing to make a speech. Father James listens as this person explains off screen about his miserable past as a rape victim when he was young boy. A Catholic priest sexually assaulted him regularly for five years before he was even a teenager, and the acts are still troubling him well into adulthood. Father James calmly reacts to these harrowing details that he's being told and asks if the victim has ever spoken to anyone about his troubles or attempted to have the priest arrested. Coldly, the confessor responds that he does not want to learn to cope and that the priest is now dead, safe from the threat of jail. He adds that he plans to kill Father James, in one week's time. Killing a bad priest will not feel satisfactory nor will it get anything accomplished, this person explains. But killing a good one? That's a way to get people's attention.  Father James walks away from the experience alert, but not in grave fear. He knows who the confessor is, but doesn't wish to contact the police. Facing this man, and the evil threat that he brings not only to him but his entire ideology, may be the biggest test of his vocation that he's ever encountered.

Life does go on for Father James despite the threat, as he wanders the wayward souls of his spiritually bankrupt town. The film takes place in one of those Irish towns where the wind is always blowing at its highest and the violent waves of the coast is always a short walk away. McDonagh crafts several lovely sweeping shots of the rural, unnamed town in a way that makes it look eternally beautiful and perpetually lonely at the same time. But as grim as the landscape may seem, it's nothing compared to the dastardly cast of characters that populate it. There's the sexually frivolous Veronica (Orla O'Rourke) who shows up to mass with large bruises on her face which may come from her sarcastic, meatpacking husband, Jack (Chris O'Dowd) or her intimidating boyfriend from the Ivory Coast, Simon (Isaach De Bankole). There's the outspokenly anti-Christian doctor, Frank (Aiden Gillen, in full Littlefinger mode), as well as the socially awkward young man with murderous perversions named Milo (Killian Scott). There's the old American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) living in seclusion, as well as the morally corrupt, indecently wealthy business man, Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) who'd like to help the church to cover up his indecency. All of these people identify as Catholic and most of them even go to mass, but they're all discourteous and often downright hostile toward Father James and what his church represents.

The church is a small, wooden chapel near the edge of the cliffs along the beach. James runs it with the other, younger priest, Father Leary (David Wilmot), whose interests seem less invested in guiding lost souls and more interested in acquiring what he is able to, tax-free of course. Adding to all this, Father James is visited by his troubled daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), after her latest suicide attempt. As the fateful week trudges on, the less allies Father James seems to have. His stubbornness in not revealing the confessor keeps both the audience and those who'd like to help him in the dark, and it's as if it could be anybody who's happened to visit his church. The central mystery of Calvary's plot is how Father James will be able to snake his way out of his death sentence, that constant tension weighing over the film as he visits and speaks with all of the town's insidious patrons. The specter of violence is always around, while the abundance of sin is always right out in the open, often there to simply mock Father James to his face. James carries himself with striking dignity throughout, even when the strength of his faith is bent to its extent, he never allows it to reach the breaking point. But even with his faith intact, will he be able to escape the week with his life?

The film is similar to High Noon with its truncated setting and revolving door ensemble, as its protagonist reaches out to all who is near asking for help and often receiving downright disdain in return. As the vultures circle around Father James, tighter and tighter, the stakes become higher. Hiring an actor like Gleeson for this part is both obvious and brilliant. For the part, he wears a big grandfatherly beard and almost never raises his voice. He's open about his own imperfectness, while always aspiring to be better. His bad qualities seem to be very few and not immediately apparent, and yet he is looked at and treated by everyone in town like a wanted criminal. Everyone, even the skeevy bartender, seem well-read on the numerous crimes of the Catholic church, and while Father James can often hide behind himself being different, he's smart enough to understand the connection. The film strikes right into the heart of the hypocrisy of religion; even when a single person is entirely virtuous, they can still be dragged down by the dogma of the church as a whole. McDonagh is smart to focus on this aspect of his surprisingly funny but strict screenplay; you can tell that's where most of his interest lies. The murder mystery is mostly treated as the plot device that it is, it's of secondary interest.

It's hard to get more dependable an actor than Gleeson. His roles are usually slated in supporting parts like the ones he mastered in Braveheart, 28 Days Later... or this summer's Edge of Tomorrow. It wasn't until Martin McDonagh gave him the best role of his career in In Bruges that we really got to see how fantastic he can be as a leading man. It's interesting to see how the McDonagh brothers have used him. He often exudes wisdom in their films, even if he's playing a hitman or a racist police chief, so to cast him as a priest seems like a perfect marriage. The piece-by-piece disintegration of Father James' iron-clad demeanor is the heart of Calvary's main tragedy, but Gleeson knows how to make it sweet and charming, as well as painful. Alongside him, McDonagh manages an entertaining ensemble, who each manage to display menace in a different way. In particular, Dylan Moran and Aiden Gillen display a perfect example of the dichotomy of the people throughout the town and they're relationship with Father James: they're both made uncomfortable by his existence but are dependent on his presence. Gleeson plays James with the knowledge that he is the only figure who can save this town, but with the humility to not let them know about it.

There's a scene in the film's second half where Father James visits a young prison inmate named Freddie Joyce, played with striking creepiness by Domhnall Gleeson. In real life, Domhnall is Brendon's son, but in Calvary they present one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes. Freddie is a young man imprisoned for crimes so horrific that he wishes that he would be hanged. Father James reminds him that there is no capital punishment in Ireland. In a lot of ways, McDonagh could have saved us all a lot of time and made Calvary a short film composing of this single scene; it composes all of the feature's central themes and conflicts and places it in one scenario. Instead, it's placement inside the movie is more like an intermission, a calm reprieve from the darkness that takes place outside of the prison. In a lot of ways, the prison is the only setting in the film where Father James feels completely safe from outside forces. There's a Cormac McCarthy-esque sympathy for the old guard, a swift destruction for a former way of life. But McDonagh is not as sympathetic with the old guard as McCarthy may be. He empathizes with Father James, but doesn't necessarily go far enough to admit that his fate is undeserved. James is forced to represent all of the sins of the church, which is probably unfair, but it still may be justice.

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