Second Breakfast: ‘Calvary’, Another Sad Character Study


Who doesn’t like sad, slow-moving character studies with dark, but morally-grounded undertones? The answer I’m looking for is, “Nobody.” Nobody doesn’t like them. I’d apologize for the double negative, but there’s so much negativity in these movies that it feels appropriate. 2014, though it lacked in several areas, had a few such films, namely Locke, A Most Violent Year, and Calvary, the last of which I haven’t linked to because that would be redundant.

Calvary (2014)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Plot: Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a principled Irish Catholic priest tries to go about his weekly routine of helping the downtrodden and corrupt after receiving a serious death threat in confession. Not wanting to break the confessional trust even after being told that in a week he’ll be murdered, James proceeds to seek a spiritual resolution to his problem, and as such gifts the audience with an internal rather than external arc.

Calvary is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a happy movie. It focuses on a genuinely good man struggling against an impending doom. Actually, more accurately, against several impending dooms. Although he does give due credit to his own inevitable demise, being a man of the cloth, he channels most of his energy into the quandaries of the soul, trying, despite a growing lack of faith and interest in the Catholic Church, to help the reluctant and wayward members of his flock, and his troubled daughter. Gleeson does a fantastic job realizes a complex character here, someone who appears unflappably strong throughout but experiences a full internal progression, all under the calm outward demeanor. That kind of arc isn’t necessarily implicit in a screenplay, and clearly exhibits Gleeson’s skills as an actor, in case anyone doubted them.

Fox Searchlight Pictures Nah, we didn't.

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Nah, we didn’t.

Said screenplay, by the way, written by the film’s director John Michael McDonagh, who is also noteworthy for having an aggressively Irish name, boasts a perfectly paced unravelling of events, precise character-based dialogue, and very few faults. What’s more, McDonagh manages to draw several obvious allusions to Christ (including the title) without being too obnoxious about. I guess the references aren’t that bad, but Father James is one of very few virtuous characters in the film, and we see him actively try to help twelve people, one of whom ends up betraying him. I mean, what else, really, am I supposed to take away from that?

The reason McDonagh gets away with it is because James, who perhaps reflects Christ in some ways, ain’t Jesus. He’s a regular guy trying to do the right thing in the face of terrible adversity. His successes are mixed evenly with failures; his virtues counterbalance a few notable flaws. What makes him a great character, and what makes those allusions not insufferable, is that where he fails, he has tried to succeed and where he has flaws, he tries to improve. We root for his guy the whole way through (even despite the fact he’s an Irish Catholic priest…), and we wrestle with the knowledge that characters like this in this type of story so very often meet tragically sticky ends.

Fox Searchlight Pictures So very often.

Fox Searchlight Pictures
So very often.

Calvary’s tone is a mixture of sad, grim, tragic (which is different from sad), and foreboding, but definitely not hopeless, and not soul-crushing. I won’t spoil anything here, but it’d be untrue to say that this film has a happy ending. McDonagh doesn’t pull any of his punches and he consciously avoids Hollywood tropes, but he also doesn’t punish his audience. The point of the movie mirrors the point of life (if we have to identify a point): it’s going to end, and it’s inherently sad when a good thing ends, but just because something is sad doesn’t mean it’s not right. That said, even though I’m well below my regular word count, I think it’s time for this article, too, to end. In the mood for a really engaging, thought-provoking, well-acted, well-written, and well-directed drama? Maybe check out Calvary some time.

Ta ta for now.

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