Review: Calvary

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It’s difficult to watch a film with such exciting potential flounder in its attempt to reach greatness. In your mind, you see the movie it could have become, a classic that would be remembered for years. Yet what you see in your mind and what you see on the screen are two very different things; the actual movie ends up letting you down, all the more because you see how close it was to achieving its ambitions. Unfortunately, I have to say that this is the case with Calvary, the latest film from Irish director John McDonagh.

From the very first scene, you get a taste of the exquisite filmmaking potential lying beneath all of Calvary‘s flaws. Father James Lavelle, played by Brendan Gleeson, sits in the confessional booth, when a parishioner walks in and tells him that he “first tasted semen when he was seven years old.” “Quite the opening line,” remarks Lavelle, but you can tell he immediately regrets it. You see, Lavelle is far from a perfect man, but he is by all accounts a decent one and a very good priest. Gleeson does a great job making use of this multifaceted character. It’s a subtly great performance, one that you begin to respect immediately. Indeed, Gleeson’s reaction is remarkably genuine when the parishioner says that he’s going to kill Lavelle; not because he’s a bad priest, like the one who raped the parishioner, but because he’s a good one. “Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.”

This scene grabs your attention immediately; it’s a terrific concept that’s made even better in a later scene. Lavelle reveals to the local bishop that he, and he alone, knows the identity of the person who threatened to take his life; the viewer is still left in the dark. As the movie develops, it’s fascinating to watch Lavelle interact with the various members of the local community while you try to figure out if he’s talking to the killer. Is it that guy? Or maybe him? Or even him???

It’s regrettable, then, that it is in this area that Calvary starts to falter. Much of the film involves a variety of side characters who live in this rural Irish town, and it tries to show you who they are and why they make certain decisions. But the film struggles to make any of these citizens seem anything like real people, and their interactions with Lavelle often come off as totally hamfisted. Even when you are given some expository information on a character, many of their actions still make little sense. This is very damaging to a film where the supporting cast is just as, if not more important to the main story than the protagonist himself.

A major part of this problem is that this movie can’t seem to decide what it wants to be; a black comedy, or a dark drama with occasional comedic elements. The truth is that it works far better as the latter, but all too often will try to be the former. The best parts of the movie are those where its serious and ponderous, and then throws in a quirky event to lighten the otherwise dour mood. But instead it will randomly alternate between long stretches of bleak storytelling (good) and then mostly pointless comedic exercises (bad). When a commoner engages Lavelle in a prolonged discussion about him feeling violent  due to his inability to get laid, you’re not laughing at the exchange, but instead thinking how out of place it feels with the rest of the film. The same could be said of when an arrogant millionaire urinates on one of his many valuable paintings. Some people in the theater laughed, but most stayed silent. This is a gloomy movie about pitch-black subject matter; you don’t want to laugh at what’s happening, despite its many attempts to make you do so.

Luckily, it all eventually culminates in a fitting conclusion that I did find to be rather poignant. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the reveal of the would-be killer is well-done. The ending will undoubtedly provoke discussion on what message the story is trying to convey, as it could be interpreted in many different ways. I suspect that this is exactly what McDonagh intended.

When looking back on Calvary, I see a movie with an excellent opening and closing, and then a lot of mehhh tucked in between. I will say that its a decent film, but not the great one that it tries to be. There are simply too many problems for me to say this is the “important” film that some are claiming it to be. Nonetheless, I caught myself the next day contemplating its fantastic ending and somber themes. Despite my many concerns, there’s something to be said for a movie that can stick with you.

I give Calvary a….

B-

That means go see it if you’re interested.

So have you seen Calvary? Do you agree with my assessment? Let me know below!

Calvary Info
Directed by: John McDonagh
Written by: John McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd, and Aiden Gillen
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: August 1, 2014 (United States)
Production Company: Reprisal Films, Octagon Films, and Protagonist Pictures
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