Calvary features its fair share of sinners, but none as acute as the creator lacking faith in his creation.
I use the word massive only in terms of ambition, and Calvary’s aspiration lies in its story. McDonagh made a fine film and his devotion is readily apparent. A dialogue-driven meditation on expansive topics—god, religion, love, death—that manages to avoid painful clichés endemic to the conversation is rare. But in the effort to reach for the brass ring, Calvary overextends. Calvarythinks it has to explain itself.
Brendan Gleeson, as Father James, plays a priest with a week to live. Or so you’d believe from the opening scene’s smelling salt kick. From there we meet the panoply of ne’er-do-wells who color Father James’ congregation. Herein lies the root of Calvary’s critical drawback. The performances are consistent and commendable, but each character is used as a mechanism. Every character functions as little more than a moral dispenser. Not to say they all trade in uplifting edicts—far from it—but they all deliver an object lesson meant to further illustrate their pre-assigned complexity.
From here the lovely scenery (and Larry Smith’s cinematography is gorgeous) doesn’t get chewed, it gets devoured. Horked down in stultifying, overly scripted monologues, when every character has a point to make, focus begins to scatter. The endless jawing at the audience becomes white noise, and it all feels tied into an effort to justify the film’s lofty thesis. Somewhere there is an exceptional 95-minute cut of Calvary, but the gap between what we have and what the film could be is an unkind inch.
With such a high volume of players on the payroll they’re impossible to recount here. Chris O’Dowd plays an aw-shucks, cuckolded butcher. Dylan Moran ably portrays a wounded, wealthy husk of a human. M. Emmet Walsh even does some light lifting as, well…an old guy. This scarcely covers the rest of the ensemble up to and including Aidan Gillen in the throes of his growliest Littlefinger snarl. When we cycle through the viewfinder there are some sublime moments, a scene set in prison in particular, but all told the story equates to a parable. As with any parable, the lesson is the character, and the characters are disposable.
Calvary's inability to whittle down to a more confident, manageable size only harms its best asset, Father James. A performance crafted by Brendan Gleeson with vision and sensitivity, his immovable quiet has never been more potent. Harried by his unrepentant, indifferent, and sociopathic flock of sheep, the story of a worldly man trying to filter his experiences through the rigidity of the priesthood becomes obscured. Does Father James die at the end of the week? You’ll find out, but it’s hardly the most important question.
Father James was an alcoholic, widower, and single father before he picked up his vows. In contrast to the young priest being preened to replace him, Father James’ faith has been forged in the furnace of adversity, not learned in seminary. He brings this outsiders perspective into a crumbling institution, is rooted against by his parishioners, and never once grapples with some predictable crisis of faith.
In this way, Calvary never takes the easy way out, and there is tremendous merit in McDonagh’s approach. With topics so apt to devolve into sentimentality or cynicism, Calvary avoids both. People will tell you it’s a black comedy or a religious drama, and it certainly contains elements of both. But when the film comes untangled from its attachments long enough to excel, it’s a thoughtful portrait of faith. Not faith as a doctrine, but faith as a process: a process of belief, a process of patience, and ultimately a process of forgiveness. The capriciousness of morality and immorality aside, trust in one’s self is at the core of faith. McDonagh arrives at this juncture, but with so much leaden self-doubt hanging about the picture, Calvary only reaches for a moral as opposed to embodying the lessons learned.