Review: CALVARY, A Tragic, Devastating Masterpiece

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Review: CALVARY, A Tragic, Devastating Masterpiece

John Michael McDonagh's 2011 directorial debut The Guard was one of the stronger debut films of recent years, combining as it did McDonagh's fabulous script, a strong but not overwhelming sense of visual style and a blazing performance from leading man Brendan Gleeson.

Three years later McDonagh is back with his sophomore effort, Calvary, and as strong as his debut picture already was, this is a massive step forward, a complex and emotionally devastating picture shot through with wry dark humor and -- once again -- an utterly arresting performance from Gleeson. Clearly this is a creative collaboration with the potential to yield remarkable fruit for many years yet to come.

Gleeson is Father James, parish priest to a small coastal village. Father James is a kind man, a good man - as much as he can be - one who may be a bit quick with a sharp response but who has a sincere vocation to the priesthood. A few demons of his own, yes, a little bit of thorny personal history from a full life led before joining the priesthood but he is one of those men who has been able to take his own losses and struggles and learn from them to bring that experience to help the people he is pledged to serve. He is, in short, a good priest. Perhaps even an excellent one. Which makes it all the more shocking when one of his parishioners informs him in confession that he intends to kill the faithful priest in one week's time.

And this, of course, is the crux of the story. What do you do with this sort of information? How do you respond? How do you best serve a man who intends to do you harm? Or do you serve him at all? While the audience does not know who has threatened Father James, the priest himself absolutely does, and that knowledge places him in the midst of a fascinating moral quandary.

A film that addresses the social ills of our time in general -- everything from the banking crisis to marital breakdown to shocking crimes -- and the crisis within the church in particular as Father James works with the individual members of his parish, Calvary is a marvelously nuanced and complex picture. Populated by a broad range of beautifully rendered characters -- both on the page thanks to McDonagh's sparkling script and the uniformly fabulous performances -- it steers steadfastly clear of easy answers (often any answers, in fact) or any sort of moralizing whatsoever, instead choosing to simply render each of the film's inhabitants as truthfully as possible. And while the subject matter appears dark and thorny on the page the execution is littered with clever dialogue and such sharp wit that it never bogs down one iota.

The core of the film is Brendan Gleeson himself, his performance an absolute career highlight that deserves major awards consideration when the time comes. Father James is a complex man in a difficult situation and Gleeson brings him to rich, full blooded life. Providing something of a counterpoint is the equally marvelous Kelly Reilly as the priest's troubled adult daughter, the product of a marriage from before his joining the priesthood. Also worthy of very specific notice are Chris O'Dowd and Dylan Moran, a pair of performers best known for their comedy work who both demonstrate (again) that they are capable of far more.

Yes, it's only January, and these sorts of pronouncements are risky indeed at this point of the year but Calvary is nothing short of a masterpiece, a very nearly flawless film that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish and does so seemingly without effort. It's a troubling experience, yes, one that left the audience in my screening frozen in their seats as they processed one that they had just experienced, but also a very rich and rewarding one. Seek this out.

Review originally published during the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014. The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, August. Visit the official site via Fox Searchlight for more information.

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Brendon GleesonJohn Michael McDonagh

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