Calvary is a good movie, anchored on yet another wonderful performance from Brendan Gleeson; it takes a while before you come back down from that and start saying “But hang on…."
After The Guard and with the horde of comedians in the cast, audiences are heading into a tonne of mood whiplash if they’re expecting another black comedy in the rural west. There’s any amount of sharp dialogue, but Calvary is less a black comedy than a tragedy with wisecracks. It opens with Brendan Gleeson’s priest taking confession; the voice from the other side of the screen tells him that he was abused by a priest and to balance the books, he’s going to murder Gleeson. No-one would blink at killing a bad priest; but to kill a good one like Gleeson; that will get people talking. He gives him a week, and the shape of the rest of the movie is what Gleeson does with that week.
It’s a wonderful performance; there hasn’t been such an uncomplicatedly human and admirable priest in a movie since the golden days of Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracey, the good old days when no-one even imagined that priests could be anything but the good guys. Much good it does Gleeson; half his parish hate the whole idea of the Catholic Church and the other half just can’t stand the way a decent man makes them feel about themselves. He spends the whole week trying to make things better for the people around him, while his world falls apart.
But through it all, he keeps secret the identity of the man who wants to kill him, and tells no-one but his bishop that the threat has even been made. I don’t think we’re supposed to like the bishop, who’s subtle and weightless, but he seemed to me to be one of the most sensible people in the movie; he rips apart the very idea that the conversation is covered by the seal of the confessional, which is pretty much the only excuse Gleeson has for not running off to the cops on day one.
At the time I was watching the movie, I kept thinking, “Good God, this priest is the only decent person in the whole parish.” Everyone else is a complete degenerate; wifebeaters; dissipated millionaire financier scoundrels; shallow useless curates; vile atheistic doctors; creepy gay hustlers. And stuck in among them, one decent man with a late vocation, doing his best to minister to the faithless, waiting for the clock to run down on a death sentence. And like Gary Cooper in High Noon, he can’t rely on anyone else to help him, the difference being that he doesn’t even give them the chance to weigh it up; this sheriff’s parish doesn’t even know he’s got a problem.
It’s afterwards that the doubts crept in. Gleeson’s Fr James Lavelle is a wonderful priest; worldly, decent, sincere, and mature enough to know that he doesn’t have the answers. Too good for his parish, say all his parishioners, but even more so, too smart, too human to just stand still and martyr himself. His acquiescence in the lunacy makes no sense once you get out of the magic spell which Gleeson weaves. But after I’d processed that thought, I went a step further, and started to wonder how good a job he was even doing as a priest. His parish - nearly everyone he interacts with in the movie - is full of irredeemable arseholes. You’d have to wonder just how well he was ministering to them that they were still such utter dicks years after he set up shop among them.
These are the afterthoughts. While you’re watching it, it’s a great piece of work. Like everything from either of the McDonagh brothers, it’s ridiculously wordy; everyone has the perfect phrase for every moment (and this is where hiring comedians for nearly every male role pays off, because they know how to make a gag seem natural). And it’s a movie that takes a welcome new angle on the running sore of clerical abuse; the way in which the natural anger and revulsion cuts away at the decent churchmen who had nothing to do with it. It doesn’t make the Church look good - what it does is remind the audience that for all the harm that’s been done, a Church is made of people, good and bad, and that the good people haven’t gone away while everyone’s been looking at the harm.