I’m fascinated by moral dilemmas, particularly with watching a compelling one play out on film. But it’s a tricky game. Push too hard, and you’re preaching – you’re the do-gooder, the Message Movie, the cinematic sermon. Avoid risk, and you’re portraying a dilemma audiences have likely seen many times before. John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary finds a perfect balance. Its core dilemma is a new and interesting conundrum, one that viewers are likely to mull over for days. This is a film that puts all the questions in the open, but doesn’t begin to suggest what the proper answers are.
Upon hearing this confession, Father James spends the subsequent week visiting the people of his small town, including his would-be killer (the identity of whom is unknown to us). And that’s when Calvary gets really interesting. It’s soon made clear that Father James knows who is future killer is, and it’s up to James to inform the police, or simply keep the man’s identity to himself. James chooses silence, which means that with each passing scene, the dilemma facing James becomes more layered and complicated. McDonagh’s script is so tight and exacting, that we’re never quite sure who to trust or who to suspect. The result is a patient and unique spin on the whodunit thriller. With “the who” well known (though, again, not to us) and the “dunit” not yet committed.
I could break down the personalities of the men and women of Father James’ parish, but to do so would be to reveal too much. The beauty of Calvary is that every character in the film is deeply flawed and battling their own inner demons, none more so than Father James himself. He’s a man of continual moral conflict and temptation; a man who enjoys strong drink and harsh word a little too openly. You may spend much of the film questioning Father James – “Why doesn’t he just go to the police?” “Does he not care about his life?” and so on. We’re questioning him, because he’s questioning himself. He’s a man desperately trying to find the right way to handle a universally wrong situation.
Having pondered the film for the past several days, I’ve realized that Father James is the finest performance Brendan Gleeson has ever given. His excellence as an actor was perhaps previously best displayed in In Bruges, which was directed by John Michael McDonagh’s brother, Martin. If Calvary suffered problems with its script, supporting performances, cinematography, and so on, Gleeson’s performance alone would be enough for me to recommend the film. Thankfully, Calvary bears no egregious flaws. This is a smart and mature film, one far more accomplished than John Michael McDonagh’s previous work, the purposefully silly romp, The Guard.
I’ve thought a lot about Father James this past week, mostly questioning his decisions and logic. I didn’t agree with all of his choices, but Gleeson is such a skilled actor, that I willingly followed him and hinged on his every word and action. If a moral dilemma film is done right, we often end the movie asking ourselves what we would do in a similar situation. We think and discuss and debate, thereby allowing the film to live on beyond its end credits. If there’s a film, and a performance, out there right now deserving of an extended life, Calvary certainly is it. B+
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