Release: Friday, August 1, 2014 (limited)
Behold, The Passion of the Brendan Gleeson.
In John Michael McDonagh’s second collaboration with the lovable Dubliner, we get to watch a good Catholic priest endure a brutal psychological and emotional beating for virtually no reason whatsoever. To the tune of Mel Gibson’s graphic portrayal of the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazereth, McDonagh takes a wholesome lead and breaks his spirit slowly and painfully.
It’s disheartening to watch because this is Brendan Gleeson and despite how good he is as Father James, there’s simply nothing funny about his character, his circumstances or the things he says, will say, or be forced to say or do. Any amusement brought about by Gleeson’s jovial rotundness remains frustratingly out of reach, sealed off by walls of misery and suffering. And if all of this is indeed meant to amuse (it’s billed as comedy/drama), we’ve stumbled upon the Guinness of black comedies here, folks — this is some dark, heavy stuff.
A mysterious parishioner makes a threat against Father James’ life one sunny afternoon, and tells him — a soul obscured by the privacy of the confession booth — that he has seven days to get his affairs in order. Asked why, the voice tries to reason thus: if you kill a corrupt leader the world fails to notice. Everyone ultimately views the act as justified on the level that that individual deserved what was coming. When harm befalls someone free of blame, the shock of the injustice would surely, ideally ignite the spark of rage within the community at large.
At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll reemphasize the cynicism displayed by McDonagh’s filming sensibilities. Specific to this considerably bleak affair, he’s a strong advocate of the notion that misery loves company. His cameras force us to trudge through a town filled to the brim with unsavory characters whose collective depravity stems from a combination of miserable luck and self-made misery. The gang’s all here: perverts, angry drunks, doctors who are also atheists. The daughter of a priest becomes suicidal after the father’s failure to establish strong ties with family after the death of the mother. Yawn. The trigger for her own personal calvary is woeful and quite honestly annoying.
Enter Chris O’Dowd, and — I’m hesitant to admit this in fear of interrupting this free flowing vitriol — at least he contributes to the picture its most complex character. As the town butcher, he doesn’t seem to mind who is sleeping with his wife. It’s only a piece of meat after all. There’s a lonely millionaire who favors luxury over happiness (this character is nothing more than a stereotype); a wife-beater; a washed-up American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) hanging on for dear life, in a pretty literal sense; and then we have the lead actor’s own son, Domnhall in an admittedly effective and borderline cameo appearance as a completely depraved, emotionless prisoner, guilty of some crime you’re probably better off not knowing about.
stoic foolish Father James (seriously man, just get out of town) makes the rounds to all of these wounded souls and more, all while the knowledge of his possible impending death hangs over his head. One shouldn’t call it a dereliction of duties if one’s life has been personally threatened in church. You’d be forgiven for taking a sabbatical in the face of an apparent act of terrorism — technically speaking, the threat is being made against this church as well as the priest. I suppose then, there’s the ultimate conflict of not having a story to film. That’s a pretty thin veil though, considering all that this intimate window into life in Northern Ireland happens to capture.
Calvary is a visually gorgeous film, one laced with scenic vistas and rich greens and blacks (beautifully emphasized in the above movie poster). It is also far too well-acted to completely dismiss. Despite the annoyance of Reilly’s character, this is not her fault and she handles a nuanced and fragile individual convincingly. She also happens to be one of the least offensive characters on display, a relative compliment. Little needs to be said about Gleeson, who happens to extend his streak of compelling protagonists with this peculiar nonpareil.
At the end of the day, despite deep convictions and some fine performances, the final product cannot be described as an enjoyable or even worthwhile experiment. You may as well add that to the list of things it shares with Mel Gibson’s relentless bloodletting farce.
Recommendation: I really can’t say that I recommend seeing Calvary unless you possess a masochistic streak in you. It’s next-to-no fun for most of the duration as the characters, while on some level identifiable, are not ones you’d ever want to share a room with, much less intimate confessions. Kudos goes to Gleeson and O’Dowd, however, for a pair of stellar performances that go beyond acting. I at times felt these people really were this far gone. That doesn’t exactly make me feel any better about the fact that sometimes the world is just evil; that there are priests out there touching kids. A fact this film all but rails against like a child in a grocery store unable to buy his candy bar.
Running Time: 100 mins.
Quoted: “I think there’s too much talk about sins and and not enough about virtues.”
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