“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” This is how writer/director John Michael McDonagh opens Calvary (2014), his latest feature film. Without having any previous knowledge of the quote, I kept pondering its importance throughout the majority of the film, attributing its possible meaning to each scene. Some of you probably know that the saying is credited to St. Augustine and refers to the two thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus Christ. After some research, I have found that it is meant to tell people not to assume the ultimate fate of others, to reserve judgment.
I’m not sure why, but it feels fairly ironic for critics like myself. After a couple of more than enjoyable views, I have my own verdict regarding McDonagh’s film. McDonagh’s Calvary is a deeply nuanced and affecting drama with some of the most effective pitch black humor I have seen in a film, as well as an incredible performance from Brendan Gleeson.
McDonagh’s feature film debut came in the form of 2011’s The Guard, a hilarious action-comedy starring Gleeson and Don Cheadle as an Irish policeman and an FBI agent, respectively, who must take down a group of drug traffickers. Calvary, on the other hand, depicts an Irish priest who must deal with the troubles of the townsfolk and his own after a mysterious parishioner gives him one week to live. The stark difference between the two films is felt from Calvary’s very beginning. The opening shot features a long take medium close-up of Gleeson’s Father James as he sits in confessional, listening to an unknown – at least to the audience – man tell of how he was repeatedly sexually abused by a priest as a child.
In this scene, the audience gets a taste of a few of aspects that contribute to the film’s mastery. First of all, the film deals with numerous thorny subjects, sexual assault being one of them. Others include suicide, racism, domestic violence, and mental illness just to name a few. Each issue defines at least one of the supporting characters in the film, giving Father James a plethora of issues to help the townsfolk work through. And like Father James, the film treats each subject with the untmost intelligence and sensitivity. The film’s black humor may be its core, however these issues never become the punchline. In fact, the black humor serves to ease the tension that these issues bring. Additionally, the film shifts well between laugh-out-loud punchlines and subtler moments that highlight how heartwarming and heartrending the plot can be.
Another subject that acts as a primary source for the film’s humor is death. Of course, this theme is very common in other forms of media and literature, but it is omnipresent in this film. Reminders of death, in one form or another, constantly surround Father James. His daughter has failed in her suicide attempt, his old, ghostly white dog is into his later years, an old American writer he brings items for talks about wanting a gun as an easier way out of life – rather than experience the sometimes painful effects of old age, not to mention his own mortality after a threat is made on his life. Between the omnipresence of death and the aforementioned subjects, the film never feels overwhelming to take in, as the dark humor comes in to alleviate the pressure.
The prevalence of death adds subtle nuance to the nature of the plot, as well. From the opening scene, we know that a credible threat has been placed upon Father James’ life. The rest of the film, we see Father James engage with the townsfolk and their diverse personalities and vices. Little do we realize that the film is setting up each character – each male character, at least – as a potential suspect as to the identity of the man who made the death threat. Interestingly enough, the film becomes a sort of murder mystery, except the primary murder that sets the plot in motion has yet to occur. The film’s plot engages the audience very well, as well as each lively minor character.
But let’s be honest, the star of the show is Brendan Gleeson as Father James. What made him the star of McDonagh’s The Guard was his portrayal of a corrupt Irish policeman, with his own brand of naiveté and subversive humor. For the most part, in Calvary, his performance is more understated, and we see it from the opening shot. Rather than a dialogue-focused performance as was necessary in The Guard, it is Gleeson’s actions and emotions that make for a grand turn, carrying the film from first frame to last.
We see that his Father James is somewhat tired of the townsfolk’s attitudes towards their own vices and the validity of virtues, often silently fearing their fates and the future of the priesthood. One character accuses him of being too judgmental for a priest, and although he recognizes this, he tries as hard as he can not to be, as his own problems with alcohol haunt him throughout the film. His character is sympathetic, but never tragic. He remains virtuous throughout, but he is pragmatic, as well. Above all, in spite of the perceived darkness of the townsfolk and the darkness he exudes with his humor, he remains hopeful, knowing that there is some light within that waits to break through.
Hope is what defines Calvary. We see it in the scenic master shots of the Irish countryside, as waves crash against the cliff sides and coastlines and the sun shines down through the clouds on top of valleys, all accompanied by a beautiful original score by composer Patrick Cassidy. Aside from the grandiose images of a beautiful Ireland – which is fairly redundant, I must admit – hope resides in the film’s message of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the message, not faith. In spite of our sins or the sins of others, whether you are a spiritual person or not, we all have the capacity to forgive not only each other, but also ourselves. We may not recognize it at first, but it is vital to living in peace.
This is what the opening quote tells us. We, like Father James, shouldn’t presume the fates of not only many of the characters in this film, but also those who have seemingly visible vices. Father James says that there’s more talk about sins, and not nearly enough about virtues. Well then, why don’t we change the conversation? Maybe some light will actually be able to penetrate the darkness.