The virtuous, the evil and the damned, the faithful and bedridden, the devout and the defiled; all are represented, all are given their moments in the sun in this extraordinary look at life and forgiveness and all that falls in between.
Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), opens with a man telling Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in confessional that he was brutally sexually assaulted for years as a child by members of the church. Now as an adult he wishes to seek revenge on those who harmed him. He tells Father James that there is no message behind killing a bad priest, but murdering a good, honest priest like him will create a lasting effect. He tells him to meet him on the beach the following Sunday.
So starts a story about a man grappling with good versus evil and going through his own personal trials to get through the end of the week. His image of God is questioned when he goes to speak with a man incarcerated for rape and cannibalism who seemingly feels no remorse. His faith is questioned when a woman survives a fatal car crash but her husband dies. His personal regulations are broken when he’s tempted by alcohol and he must deal with the comically perturbed members of his small town – from the cynical doctor to the simple butcher and the town seductress.
Then there is his daughter, played by the charming Kelly Reilly, who’s home for a few days after a failed suicide attempt. The two spend hours talking around each other and their issues. Both feel the grief of the loss of his wife and her mother, and his following abandonment stung her more than he ever knew. Their relationship is orchestrated so that it never feels inorganic, and so that by the movie’s end you feel as if you know everything you need to know about the two.
The movie itself wouldn’t be what it is without some powerhouse performances, namely by Gleeson, who has never been better. While he is more subdued here than many of his other performances, his restraint is purposeful so that we always see the effort it takes for him to keep a level head and to grant peace to those patrons of his that need it. He is a figure of stability in the town, no matter how often his religion is beguiled. He is a man out of time while simultaneously being a man whose time will never pass, forcing him into a limbo. We watch as he spends his week with his daughter, with his peers and with himself as his wonders who will meet him on the beach.
As mentioned, Reilly is a delight to watch, all open vulnerability and warmth. Chris O’Dowd arguably gives his best performance as the town butcher, and actors such as Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Domhnall Gleeson and Marie-Josee Croze all do beautiful and subtle work as well.
The film also works on a purely aesthetic and atmospheric note with some stunning imagery. We feel the breeze, hear the ocean and can sense the egregious amount of life surrounding these characters. It’s oddly significant just how prominent a role nature takes in this film considering the recurring debate on life itself. How lifeless some of these people are despite surroundings that are overwhelmed with it. Gleeson is often seen traipsing through the wilderness around him as the others stay indoors: in the bar, in their lavish houses or in the hospital. He is a spiritual man and one who must be amongst the living in order to speak so often about death. His spirituality is untarnished and sturdy no matter the dark matter that tries to consume him.
The beauty is helped by the reliance on good old-fashioned location scouting as well as an eye for beauty in the cinematography.
Father James, in a moment of introspection, tells his daughter that there is too much talk of sin and not enough of forgiveness. What a way to sum up the means of life. Bad things happen, people do bad things to themselves and to others, and because of this we overlook the righteous and the pure to see the evil in our midst. The goodhearted, albeit flawed priest believes that too often do we seek sin rather than forgiveness. We’ve been taught to look for the worst in others and it’s something that needs to change.
This movie was an emotional exercise and it’s one made with such honesty and beauty that it’s a shame it will likely be shoved under the rug for the bigger and brighter fanfare. Bad things often happen to good people and it’s a useless, violent cycle, and that is the message the film is trying to make: the innocent may be wrecked and the evil may get to live their lives in solitude, but such is life. It’s a story about good and evil and the ones who strive to be better.