Calvary (Ireland/UK, 2014)

calvary-posterDirected by: John Michael McDonagh. A few years ago, I did a run of the McDonagh brothers, who came onto the film world at roughly the same time in the late 2000’s with independent yet similar brands of dark comedy, ranging from truly poignant uncomfortable humour to simply trudging out politically incorrect stuff for a chuckle. The first shot to be fired was Martin McDonagh’s cult hit In Bruges, which is already an underground classic whose lines are quoted amongst insiders like a secret password, I suspect at the level of Lebowski amongst Brits. I really enjoyed In Bruges, but when I saw the disappointing follow up, Seven Psychopaths, and then the debut by Martin’s brother John Michael, The Guard, it either looked like both of them were one-hit wonders, or that John Michael was the one with the talent. Either way, they were both tied, one hit for one hit. And, though it’s a terrible thing to measure one brother against the other, to “keep score”, it’s really hard not to say that now, with Calvary, John Michael is looking like my favourite McDonagh. This is really the peak example of the McDonagh brand of comedy which, when it works properly, like In Bruges, is underpinned by a believable and compelling layer of human drama. This film starts off with a gut punch—Brendan Gleeson dressed as a priest, sitting in confessional, listening to an unseen voice announce in the first dialogue of the film: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” Immediately, we’re uncomfortable, and immediately we know exactly what is underpinning this film, and arguably, underpinning that whole dark, Irish wit that the McDonaghs are doing such a great job purveying. Maybe that’s what makes them tick—Seven Psychopaths just meandered off the rails trying to tell a story about Hollywood, where maybe McDonagh films need a certain ratio of Irish accents and/or scenery in order to be effective. The modern situation of being Irish amounts to a lot more than I’m aware of through just watching movies, I’m sure, but what those movies have taught me is that the big shadow across Irish culture is the centuries-old entrenchment of the Catholic Church and the ingrained, accepted, ignored, and silenced history of abuse that only juuuuuuuust started seeing any kind of public discourse within the last generation. The entire narrative of the film is about the Irish people getting revenge for centuries of abuse, and the Church, embodied in the last “good priest”, accepting its own downfall as a just thing. Brendan Gleeson in this role cements his position as the walking, cursing, sinning, patron saint of modern Irish cinema. There was something so natural and fitting in seeing him dressed like a traditional priest, it was the part he was born to play. And again, I’m not in a position to say how this went over in Ireland, but from where I’m standing, this movie looks like a great statement, a great uncomfortable look in the mirror, jam packed with a cast of some of the great Irish actors today—Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran—as well as the great M. Emmet Walsh and the great Isaach de Bankolé. This is a great small-town murder mystery where the murder happens at the end, a who-gunna-do-it, that’s actually genuinely funny even as it’s genuinely really pertinent. As with anything influenced by Tarantino this much, McDonagh scripts always threaten to drown their real-life human drama in stylized characters and self-consciously fictitious dialogue, but I’m inclined to let that lay for another day.

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2 responses to “Calvary (Ireland/UK, 2014)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2016 | Offhand Reviews·

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