Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Calvary

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.

The film begins with a long confession heard by the good-natured Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a priest of a small Irish parish. In this confession, one of James’ parishioners reveals that he was repeatedly raped by a priest when he was younger. The priest who committed those crimes has since died, so this parishioner freely (and somewhat eagerly) admits that he will get his revenge by murdering Father James next Sunday. According to the parishioner’s logic, it will hurt the Catholic Church far more to kill a good priest like James than it would to kill a bad priest.

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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21 comments:

  1. Nice review, Alex! I haven't seen Calvary yet, but it certainly sounds intriguing. I know Gleeson didn't have as large of a role in Edge of Tomorrow, but I thought he was good in that this year. My personal favorite role of his was in the Harry Potter movies as Mad Eye Moody. Can't help it - that franchise is filled with so many great, big-name actors like Gleeson.

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    1. Thanks Kristin! That's what's so cool about Gleeson, he's hit so many different genres aimed at some many different demographics, and he's always great. So, if you're a fan of his work, I really think you'll like him in Calvary. Hope you have a chance to see it!

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  2. I really loved this film. I have a thing for movies about religious conflicts and this is one of the best I've seen. I thought it looked gorgeous and it was so funny too. The acting was incredible and yes, this is totes Gleeson's best performance yet.
    Nice review :)

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    1. Thanks Nik! I love religious conflict movies as well. One of the reasons I'm so taken with Bergman. SO happy you agree that this is Gleeson's best work yet. He really crushed it in this.

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  3. I heard many great things about this film, and I cannot wait to watch it (soon hopefully). I love Brendan Gleeson, I doubt if this will top his performance in In Bruges (my opinion) but I can hope :) I think it is truly a great feat that an actor who looks so intimidating can portray such sensitive characters, he is truly one of the greats.

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    1. It's right there for topping his work in In Bruges, which is crazy, I know. I really loved him in this film, and I hope you have a chance to see it soon!

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  4. This is something I want to see as I really liked The Guard and Brendan Gleeson's performance as I want to see if he can pull off another winner here.

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    1. I think you'll like it man. I did enjoy The Guard, but this is a far more mature and nuanced film. Definitely a winner.

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  5. To preface my comment, I would like you to know that I love this site. I very much “get something” out of what I read here.

    The “Calvary” about which you write, however, bears little resemblance to the film I have seen. I’ll just get to the point, I hope, without being hurtful to you: I find your reading to convey some deficit in your own familiarity with Catholicism in general and the priesthood in particular.

    I base this, mostly, on your language of “dilemma” and “conundrum”. At no point would the priest have been moving in the direction of revealing the identity of the person threatening his life. James would look upon the seal of confession as sacred and his only point to contemplate would be whether to stick around and allow himself to be killed.

    If you spent much of your time questioning James – you don’t say you do – as to why he will not go to the police or as to whether or not he cares about his own life … and if you think, truly, that he is questioning himself, then you do not understand James.

    (Also, I do not think that the various characters are deeply flawed persons battling their own inner demons. Rather, I think they are caricatures of various historical and contemporary challenges facing the Church. Nor would I agree with your “none more so than Father James himself” claim. He uses harsh language but his moral status, compared to those around whom he finds himself, is relatively comfortable).

    My direct language is simply to get the ball rolling if the conversation is to your interest. I am not trying to insult your knowledge or be hurtful. To give you a more detailed sense of where I am coming from, I have written a reaction here:

    http://ponderingsofapriest.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/calvary/

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    1. I didn’t find your direct language hurtful at all, but I do appreciate your disclaimers. Unfortunately, I don’t have any interest in discussing religion on this site, a topic that would be impossible to avoid given the present subject matter. We clearly viewed the film differently, which is fine. Great art defies a singular interpretation, but providing evidence (for lack of a better word) to back my interpretation up is, again, something that doesn’t interest me, especially as religion is an unavoidable topic. I appreciate your comment (genuinely, I mean that) and I plan to give your review a read soon.

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    2. Hello Alex,

      Even if a person does not draw value from the experience of religion, do you not think that religious systems of thought still can provide important interpretive lenses for certain things being viewed and, therefore, merit familiarity? I accept that you might have little interest in certain directions of conversation, but do you not think that it is possible to don a blinder to good interpretation?

      I too believe that great art can have a variety of interpretations and while I do not think persons should feel bound to the interpretive course a director has set, I think familiarity with that course is essential. Finding that lacking here occasions my bafflement at the language of dilemma and conundrum, the assessment that James is more flawed and demon-battling than the rest of the townspeople or the questioning of James’ supposed love of life. That is not the landscape McDonagh is setting .

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  6. I know this isn't much in the way of adding to the discussion (besides your review pretty much took the words right outta my mouth) buuuuut... all the way through this wonderful motion picture I was just so flippin' jealous of Gleeson's beard. I MEAN JUST LOOK AT IT. ugh.

    Nice writeup, man. Glad you enjoyed it! The McDonagh brothers are damn near unstoppable.

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    1. Haha YES! Dude's beard was insane. Thanks again for the push on this one - really enjoyed it.

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  7. Great review, and I love the first paragraph ... you stated that perfectly. And I do love Brendan Gleeson. This will need to go on my list.

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    1. Thanks so much! I'd love to know your thoughts on this one. Some really great conflict in it.

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  8. I really want to see that because people keep tweeting about how amazing the movie is and Kelly Reilly is in it, an actress I really like, but people also talked about loving The Guard and I couldn't even finish that one. This looks sufficiently different though, so I'm gonna try to see it soon even though Aiden Gillen is in it and after seeing him on GoT is hard for me to take him or the scenes he is in seriously anymore.

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    1. Honestly, this is nothing like The Guard, a film I kind of liked, but doubt I'll ever see again. Calvary has the same very dark humor, but it's a much smarter and much more mature film. Reilly is really solid in it, as is Gillen (who plays a character that we're actually not supposed to take too seriously).

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  9. Great review! I'm looking forward to this one. I love Gleeson and I really enjoyed The Guard. Plus Littlefinger from Game of Thrones is in it, I have to see that. ha

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    1. Thanks! Ha, gotta do it - it's a really solid film. Gleeson is so damn good in it.

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  10. Wonderful review! This film was quite a surprise. Honestly, it's probably my #1 film of the year now. It hit me hard, and still lingers almost a week later. Gleeson is phenomenal, and I love the risks the script takes. I still give Linklater Best Director at the moment, but this gut-punch will be hard to shake. I can't wait to see it again!

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    1. Awesome man! Love that you loved it so much. I thought it was great. I can't wait to see it again too, especially knowing what we know now...

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