Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?! Was my reaction at the end of this film. In regards to various aspects – just WHY?! Calvary was a great film but it left me feeling exasperated at various characters’ choices. They all had their reasons, but their choices were still a bit dumb.
Calvary begins with Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) listening to a parishioner’s confession. A man – faceless to the audience and of course, Lavelle – tells Lavelle that he was raped by a priest when he was a child, and wants revenge. As the priest in question has since died, the man has decided to murder a ‘good’ priest to send a message to the church. He tells Lavelle to meet him on the beach in seven days where he will meet his fate. The film then proceeds to show us the next seven days…
This is neither a pro- or anti-religion film. Set in present day Ireland, Calvary explores the place of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of revelations of past sexual abuse. In one scene, Lavelle strikes up a friendly conversation with a young girl he sees out walking, and is interrupted by the girl’s father screaming at her to get into the car and away from someone he perceives as a predator. The film succeeds in making the viewer simultaneously feel for Lavelle in regards to unfair prejudice against him, while also understanding others’ feelings of distrust towards the church. Looking at the bigger picture, this scene would still ring true if the church wasn’t even involved. Any man seen speaking to a child is met with immense suspicion in this day and age. But that’s another story, or film (for further exploration of this topic see The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012)). Lavelle is indeed a good priest, but one who seems to be becoming disillusioned – not necessarily from his belief in God, but his belief in himself and others. He is surrounded by some pretty despicable characters – some religious, some not – and he is somewhat heroic in his efforts to assist them where he can.
Calvary is somewhat of a who-dunnit, – at least for the audience – though in this case it’s more of a ‘who’s-gunna-do-it’. There are a few potential psychopaths in the midst so it really could be anyone. Chris O’Dowd (love that guy) is a socially awkward butcher whose wife (Orla O’Rourke) has a black eye, though he claims she got it from her boyfriend (Isaach De Bankolé). Aidan Gillen is a creepy as hell doctor who has little empathy for his patients. Dylan Moran is an arrogant prick who has more money than what he knows to do with and loves to let everyone know about it. M. Emmet Walsh is an elderly man who asks Lavelle to get him a gun so he can die on his own terms. Gary Lydon is an inspector with questionable morals. And Killian Scott is a young man who wants to enlist in the army as a means of sublimating his aggressive urges. It could easily be any of them, though I did manage to guess correctly – but it wasn’t necessarily obvious. We do hear his voice at the start and I wonder how many people guessed from that too, though I didn’t get it from that.
The whole cast is impressive, and not just the suspects listed above (though obviously we know it’s not the woman or her boyfriend based on the voice). Kelly O’Reilly stars as Lavelle’s daughter, Fiona, who has recently attempted suicide, and puts in a beautiful performance. David Wilmot as Father Leary is hilariously awkward, and Domhnall Gleeson is almost unrecognisable as a definite psychopath who Lavelle visits in prison. When he first appeared on screen I wondered if it was him but then decided it wasn’t (he was sans red hair), only to see his name in the closing credits. His performance was chilling. Brendan Gleeson (unrelated) was the true star of the film, however, embodying the role of Lavelle whole-heartedly.
Though billed as a drama, Calvary provides plenty of laughs, though the jokes are very dark. Jokes about sex, death, and suicide manage to stay just the right side of the line, as crazy as that may sound. This film did reinforce to me though that suicidal individuals really do need intervention from mental health professionals above any others. The things Lavelle said to his daughter! They were SO NOT THE RIGHT THING TO SAY. Making people who have attempted suicide feel guilty = NOT THE RIGHT METHOD. But I digress. The ending is difficult to grapple with – just WHYYYYYYYYYYYY – but I think those with an appreciation of faith may get more out of it. The rest of us just sit there and wonder why he didn’t go straight to the police. Nevertheless, as a non-believer I could still appreciate the film, and have a vague understanding of why Lavelle does what he does. To say anymore would obviously involve spoilers so if you want to find out… Check it.