John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, the follow up to his stellar directorial debut The Guard, is not as funny as that buddy-cop parody, and is a hell of a lot more dark. Which is kind of saying something, because The Guard is already pretty dark. But where The Guard skates along the edge of the darkness and gallows humor that defines law enforcement officers the world over, Calvary lives in the darkness of the human soul, weighing the various kinds of crimes that can slowly rot someone from the inside out. It’s a deep film—sometimes a depressing one, sometimes a moving one—but overall Calvary is a methodical examination of 21st century spirituality and what it means to be evil or to forgive.
Brendan Gleeson stars as Father James, a priest in a picturesque seaside Irish town. When the film opens, someone confesses to Father James that he suffered violent sexual assault for years at the hands of a priest as a child, and is now going to kill Father James because to kill a good priest will make more of an impact than to kill a bad one. One can also infer that killing a good priest is somehow equivalent to what has happened to the future murderer—that a good priest is equal to an innocent child in some way.
There’s no excuse for murder, but by telling us right off why this unseen person wants to kill Father James, we’re given an understandable frame for the event. This is not a random psychopath, this is a person in terrible pain, who has been denied justice and so is succumbing to an Old Testament form of reparation—an eye for an eye. Father James seems to accept his role as sacrificial lamb and the film follows him over his final week as he “gets his affairs in order”, as his murderer recommends he should do.
Throughout the week we meet several of Father James’s parishioners—terrible people, all of them. They range from adulterers to swindlers to a serial killer, and over the course of the week we watch as Father James loses patience with his wandering flock. They want his absolution on Sundays, but on every day in between they mock him and one of them does something unspeakable to his dog. Through his conversations with each, we see a man who believes in redemption struggling with people who seem determined to test the bounds of his patience and understanding.
The whole film is really excellent, but the stand-out interactions come between Father James and three people: Fiona, his troubled daughter; Michael Fitzgerald, a shady financier; and Freddie Joyce, a former student turned serial killer. With Fiona (Kelly Reilly, Flight) we see forgiveness in action as father and daughter reconnect and reaffirm their relationship. Interactions with Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran, Shaun of the Dead) are pricklier, but ultimately, when Fitzgerald confesses his moral emptiness, Father James offers him solace. And with Freddie (Domhnall Gleeson) we see that sometimes forgiveness can only be given by those no longer present to offer it. The scene with Freddie is especially powerful, with both generations of Gleesons delivering career-high work.
Throughout the film McDonagh, who wrote the script as well, resists the maudlin and the trite, often opting to end scenes in highly unsatisfying ways. Father James’s conversations with Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen, Game of Thrones), a doctor whose lost his compassion, never end well. They meet in the most depressing of circumstances and neither of them ever seem to get what they want from the other. Ditto for Leo (Owen Sharpe, The Guard), a hustler who is implied to be another victim of childhood abuse. Leo is calculated to be intensely unlikeable, but he’s also the character who represents the long-term effects of a system that protected monsters at the expense of children. The murderer remains a mystery to us, so Leo is our exemplar.
The specter of the sex abuse scandals that plague the Catholic Church looms large over Calvary. As Father James tells his murderer, he felt “detached” from it, but the film seeks to explore all the ways in which great evil touches everyone—no one is exempt from the fall out, especially Father James. Though everyone acknowledges that he is a good priest, that doesn’t stop anyone from doling out casual mockery because of the church’s recent past, and it also puts Father James in the position of having to deal with the loathsome Fitzgerald because he wants to donate money as a penance.
The inescapable nature of evil is best illustrated in one scene in which Father James is confronted by an angry, frightened father. Walking to the beach, he begins to talk to a young girl about her vacation. It’s perfectly innocent and shows us that Father James is genuinely interested in people and that despite everything he’s dealing with, he can still find kindness for others. But then the girl’s father finds them on the road and is so plainly suspicious and upset that his daughter was with a priest that there’s no mistaking the connotation—Father James is being painted with the predator brush. And he is deeply disturbed by this, and saddened that the thing that brought him solace during his time of grief in turn has in turn inflicted great grief upon others.
The final confrontation with the murderer seems anti-climactic when compared to some of the earlier scenes in the film, but there is a stand-out moment when Father James accuses him of the dog thing. “Why would I do that?” the murderer responds, and here we have a scale of evil. Murder is wrong, but we understand why it’s happening. But the dog thing is just cruelty for cruelty’s sake, one crime placed in context with another and in that moment, mindless cruelty rates higher than murder. Father James believes no one is beyond redemption, but one wonders what he would say to the person who killed his dog. For all the ways Calvary explores how people hurt one another, it’s an act of petty viciousness that stands as the starkest example of how cruel people can be.