Aug. 12 2014 06:20 PM

John Michael McDonagh crafts another rural western that grapples with questions of faith

Brendan Gleeson

The Catholic Church has a longstanding history of self-denial. By perfecting the art of subterfuge, the religious institution has successfully hidden many of its internal demons from the public (child molestation being the most egregious), breeding a culture of repression and rage underneath a pious façade. 

John Michael McDonagh's Calvary shoves these sins out into the open in a darkly comic way, addressing the human contradictions and consequences wrought by such damning ideological policies. While the film doesn't always succeed in meshing these tones together, it remains a peculiar statement on modern faith that's hard to shake.

Calvary's Christ figure, a troubled Irish priest named Father James (Brendan Gleeson), operates out of a quaint rural town nestled up against the blistery coastline. His quirky flock consists of an adulteress (Oria O'Rourke), her violent husband (Chris O'Dowd) and stoic lover (Isaach De Bankolé), an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) and a host of other fringe characters that form a mosaic of earthly sin. Father James isn't without his own past indiscretions, having joined the priesthood after his wife suddenly passed away, abandoning his daughter (Kelly Reilly) in the process.

While epic helicopter shots of lush countryside frame the opening credits, these picturesque images are misleadingly peaceful, arriving only after a stifling scene of veiled confrontation. During confession, a faceless parishioner tells that a priest once abused him and that his plan for revenge involves killing Father James in a week's time. The perpetrator's goal is to make a statement against the church, murdering an innocent man in retaliation for the countless guilty sinners who've gone unpunished despite their horrific deeds. The audience remains unaware of the tormentor's identity, but Father James recognizes the voice immediately. He refuses to share the information and spends the rest of the film hoping to shift what seems like an inevitable course of action.

McDonagh made his feature-length debut with 2011's The Guard, a cagey riff on the sheriff / outlaw template that also starred Gleeson. With Calvary, the duo once again uses the western for inspiration. Father James has sequestered himself in an outlier settlement of miscreants, each harboring his own resentment toward the church and society at large. There's a one-sided shootout in a bar that represents the utter futility of using weaponry to communicate a point. Conversations feel like showdowns, with each sentence containing threats both idle and overt. McDonagh's characters have always had the gift of gab, but, here, syllables are uttered to inflict maximum verbal damage.

At times, Calvary scatters its thematic net too wide, incorporating angry undercurrents about colonialism, economic malfeasance and homophobia into the plot. McDonagh skewers the church's contradictory messaging in response to these historically complex elements, but the script never treats these threads as seriously as those specifically linked to Catholic doctrine. This creates a schizophrenic pacing that distracts from Gleeson's sterling performance. 

Calvary wants to have its cake and eat it too. Father James has a great line that proffers some hope in McDonagh's mostly bleak proceedings: "There's too much talk about sins and not a lot about virtues." Still, where the film ends up contradicts this message strikingly, leaving the viewer with a sour taste regarding devout faith and those willing to criticize the church's blatant disregard for human interests. Maybe by not taking a definitive stand, McDonagh is trying to reveal the absurdity of it all, the lunacy of trying to glean meaning and contrition from a set of beliefs that have been so bastardized over the years. 

Either way, Calvary—which opens Friday, Aug. 15, at Hillcrest Cinemas—leaves an indelible mark. For a film about judgment, it's amazingly non-judgmental, showing compassion to all types of saints and serpents. Warts and all, McDonagh's examination of conflicted faith practices what it preaches until the bitter end.

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