Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: Calvary

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
John Michael McDonagh's "Calvary" is a mordantly funny, but ultimately bleak, tale that combines a heavily thematic tale of a priest who suffers for the sake of his small Irish town as a modern Christ figure with a, well, not such much whoddunit, but rather a who's-gonna-do-it.

In the film, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) hears the confession of a man who claims to have been sexually assaulted repeatedly in his youth by a Catholic priest. The man, he tells Father James, is long since dead, so there's no possible way to enact revenge against him. Rather, the man says that he will kill Father James in one week's time, not because the priest has done anything wrong, but rather as a way to substitute one heinous act that should have no place in the universe for another.

The film - which is directed by playwright Martin McDonagh's brother, who also directed Gleeson in the funny crime drama "The Guard" - follows Father James as he attempts to guide the denizens of his small Irish town through the course of the week and ponders how he will handle the situation in which he has found himself.

The townspeople are far from saints. There's a butcher (Chris O'Dowd) who may or may not be abusing his wife, a doctor (Aiden Gillen), who choses not to have any sort of emotional attachment toward humanity as a means of not caring about his patients and an immigrant (the great Isaach De Bankole) who is seeing a local married woman on the sly. The town's residents all - in some form or fashion - act abusively toward Father James. And while he doesn't take their shenanigans lightly - in fact, he rips into one or two of them rather humorously - he still tries to find something worthwhile in each of them.

I'm not going to go into too many details on the direction in which the film's narrative goes, but suffice it to say that Father James' own road to Calvary also includes a Virgin Mary-esque character in the form of a woman whose husband and children died in a car accident as well as a reconciliation with a daughter whom he fathered years before becoming a priest.

"Calvary" is frequently funny - especially during a sequence in which O'Dowd ponders his wife's ailments - and occasionally moving, but also dark and surprisingly glum. Gleeson carries the film with his solid performance as Father James, but each of the supporting actors also bring something to the table. The film's ending leaves one or two mysteries unsolved - I'd argue, perhaps, a bit unsatisfactorily - but "Calvary" is a moody little comedic thriller that takes a unique approach to thematically incorporating elements of religion into a mystery story.

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