Review: “Calvary” 12.6.14

Writer/director brothers John Michael McDonagh and Martin McDonagh may be 2 of the best filmmakers out right now on the current scene. Unlike The Coen Brothers and more like Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony but catered more towards the intellectually minded moviegoer, they both make their own films as they seem to each have their own unique approach and take on cinema. I was first introduced to the pair by way of brother Martin’s brilliant and often unspoken of “In Bruges” (2008). A film about 2 hitmen, played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Ferrall (in what I still consider to be the latter’s best performance to date), as they hide out in a small Belgian town called Bruges. Then came the writer/director of this film, John Michael, and his bravura debut film “The Guard” (2011). A crime film about a dirty cop, once again played by Brendan Gleeson, and the detective brought in (Don Cheadle) to help him infiltrate a drug smuggling operation in a small Ireland town. I still consider “The Guard” to be one of the better crime comedies of the past decade that had a knock out, razor-sharp script that proved John Michael had an undeniably gifted knack for writing as well as directing. Then the year following, we got another fresh and exciting new film from his brother Martin in the form of “Seven Psychopaths”. Martin’s second film about hitmen boasted an incredible cast by the likes of Colin Ferrall, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, and Michael Pitt. All 3 of the aforementioned films earned Honorable Mentions spots on my “best of” lists from those years. Enter 2014 and we now have the second film by brother John Michael, fresh off of “The Guard”. One that once again starred Brendan Gleeson, who as mentioned above, has starred in 3 out of the 4 of the brothers’ films to date. I’ve always considered Gleeson to be one of the more gifted actors currently working in film who seems to almost always impress me both in and outside of the studio system. That and he’s earned himself 3 Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor for 2 of the films mentioned above, ironically enough 2 films by different brothers, both of which I already mentioned, those being both Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” (2008) and John Michael’s “The Guard” (2011). Because I thought so highly of all 3 of the films by this writer/director/brother team, who mostly work independently outside of one another, and are a great example of my approach to movie watching ethos, I decided to put this one high up on my list when it came out. Having missed it during its theatrical run, I drew up quite a bit of anticipation of seeing it once it became available on DVD.

The film grabs our attention right off the bat with a man who while in confession conveys a dark secret to the church’s priest Father James (played by Gleeson). A confession that possesses certain ramifications to both Gleeson and one of the other fathers. This sets the wheels in motion automatically straight from the get go as Gleeson then goes on a mission to find out information from other members of the Irish community in which he lives in. Along the way he encounters a multitude of different townspeople. None of whom seem to have respect for the honorable priest, who seems to be ridiculed and mocked in just about every said encounter. Gleeson’s Father James is a troubled, wounded man, who seems torn by his profession. As he is both a servant of the Lord and an a man of principles outside of the faith, who seems to just want to know the truth, regardless of whatever evilness he’s willing to come across while trying to find it. Throughout the story we are introduced to several characters – his suicidal daughter (played by “Eden Lake’s Kelly Reilly), town mistress, writer friend (M. Emmet Walsh), doctor, nemesis (the wonderful, scene stealing Chris O’Dowd from the hit TV show “The IT Crowd”), criminally minded mechanic (played by Jim Jarmusch regular Issach De Bankole), and rather very wealthy but stubborn financial backer of the church. Not one of them seems to have one iota of respect and/or care in the world for Father James and he only finds opposition from his many parishioners who seem to be doubting both their own faith in themselves as well as the Father’s in his own personal quest to seek the truth. A journey of self-discovery that finds him testing his faith in spirituality and religion, both inside and out.

This was a remarkable film from almost every cinematic standpoint. First is yet another brilliantly gifted performance by Brendan Gleeson, who seems tailor-made for this type of material, an actor who seems to be a muse for writer/director John Michael and his brother Martin. In one of his more finer performances to date. He is enigmatic here as he carries weight of this complex and emotionally resonant material on his back. He is the meat and bones of the film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he earns his third of fourth Golden Globe nomination working for this unquestionably talented writing/directing team of brothers. The second thing that should be pointed out is the assured and flawless script and direction by John Michael McDonagh. It’s a landmark achievement from both a writing and directing standpoint. Since the film relies heavily on its script, as did McDonagh’s last directorial effort “The Guard” did. He utilizes his trademark dark comedy and humor to reveal a story that winds up being much deeper than I possibly could have ever imagined going into it. The scenes between both Father James’ Gleeson and his daughter (Reilly) are particularly strong, poignant, touching, and heartfelt. McDonagh makes sure not to waste a single frame here as it features some gorgeous cinematography of both the Ireland coast and countryside. The Mise-en-scene (the setup of images within each shot) on display here is nothing short of dazzling. The lighting radiates across the screen and both it and the film’s framing are impeccably shot. It also boasts a very well put together soundtrack, one in which its music of classic oldies, more traditional Irish folk music, and melancholic piano and string sounds is perfectly aligned with the material. Last, but certainly not least, it does an incredible job at exploring such difficult themes such as questioning faith, morality, the evil that men do, and prejudices about the priesthood. All done with a sense of authenticity and grace that is so rarely done of movie of this kind (an exception being 2008’s Academy Award nominated “Doubt”). While admittedly I thought the first third of the film dragged a bit, I soon came to realize that it was done so in a way only to effectively set up the story and characters. This wound up being a refreshing take on one man’s morals, principles, religion, and faith, that totally won me over and in my opinion is so far is right on par with both the writer/director brothers’ best work to date. Along with a spellbinding performance by Brendan Gleeson. This one is sure to make my list of Honorable Mentions at this year’s end, and just might wind up vying for a spot on my top 10. A sharply written, brilliantly directed, and well acted film. “Calvary” is a phenomenal film that just happens to fall somewhere just slightly below the slew of this year’s best.

[strong B+]

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