A Clash Between a Shepherd and His Flock

BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA

Calvary PhotoAlthough he has only made two feature-length films, director John Michael McDonagh seems to have a gift for creating stories that are rooted in the Irish culture, like he did back in 2011 with his fantastic crime comedy, “The Guard.” Now, he has switched to a much more dramatic narrative with “Calvary,” and re-teams with his “Guard” leading man, Brendan Gleeson, for a film that asks a lot questions, but doesn’t offer easy answers.

In Ireland, Father James (Gleeson) is a Catholic priest whose life is threatened during a confession when a parishioner tells him that he will kill him in one week as an act of vengeance for what was done to him in his youth by another priest, who has since died. During the next week Father James will come to know some dark secrets of his churchgoers, while also attempting to reconnect with his suicidal daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who is visiting from London.

Brendan Gleeson gives an outstanding performance as the troubled priest. His character doesn’t show any sign of fear, but a deep-rooted sense of faith that carries him through this foreboding week. Gleeson portrays Father James’ great love for his churchgoers such that the more misfortunes that befall him the worse the audience is bound to feel for the character. When other individuals in the community begin to turn against the priest, you will feel compelled to stick by him and see him through this strange ordeal.

Kelly Reilly, whose talent has her deserving of much more recognition, is wonderful as Father James’ daughter. What’s most admirable about her character is that she’s not someone to hold a big grudge against her father and act mopey around him, but someone who tries to reconnect with him throughout her stay. Her tranquil personality allows her to understand the type of person her father is without getting upset with him. Reilly is able to forge strong connections with her very experienced co-stars, as she also exemplified in “Flight,” alongside Denzel Washington.

There is an in-depth view of the film’s Irish community that is offered through the very distinct supporting characters, which include the local bartender (Pat Shortt), the town butcher (Chris O’ Dowd), a deeply disturbed prison inmate (Domhnall Gleeson), a promiscuous young woman (Orla O’Rourke), a very darkly funny doctor (Aidan Gillen) and several others. All of these individuals are easily memorable because of the scenes they share with the main character and the content of those interactions. Each supporting character is given enough detail to present their own little stories that make up the bigger community in which they live.

The cinematography by Larry Smith offers gorgeous landscape shots of Ireland, particularly the seaside. Some of these shots are aerial in their photography, as if a higher being is watching over this small community and hoping that the priest can turn his churchgoers into more virtuous people. Because of this, the framing of these shots contributes to the film’s religious aspects.

What’s interesting about John Michael McDonagh’s screenplay is how the narrative doesn’t unfold in the way that you might expect, given the type of story it presents. Seeing as Father James and the audience already have an idea of who the culprit is because of his recognizable voice during the confession scene, the movie becomes more about the priest dealing with the lack of morals in his community, rather than about him trying to figure out who’s threatening him. Your sympathy continues to build for his character as the week goes on and his number of adversaries becomes larger.

One of the many intelligent things that McDonagh does with the screenplay is that he doesn’t have the priest outright try to stop people from committing sins, but has him believe that his parishioners still have the capability to stop themselves from committing them. This all ties into the resilience of his faith that those in his community will do what’s right and turn away from sin.

Director McDonagh has made a film that terrifically merges the drama and suspense of the story. Again, although the audience might have an idea of who the culprit is during the film, the suspense comes from how the priest and community interact with each other, and McDonagh keeps that tension as the story positions Father James against his parish.

When watching “Calvary,” the weightiness of the story latches itself onto you, and you give into it right away. With that, McDonagh has made a movie that’s original, emotional and fearless.

Final grade: A