Named after the hill by Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, Calvary, from playwright turned filmmaker John Michael McDonagh begins as a psychologically driven whodunnit thriller before quickly and rather disappointingly devolving into an allegorical, avant-garde version of High Noon.
And while that might sound interesting, ultimately you get the feeling that – at least conceptually – the unorthodox approach utilized by McDonagh would’ve translated much better on the stage of an experimental theatre company than it does on the movie screen.
Surprisingly emotionally frigid given its subject matter, Calvary holds viewers at an arm's length and a long arm at that as we feel even further away from its characters than those who fill the frames of fellow provocateurs Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke.
Yet this time around the sacrificial lamb isn't Jesus as suggested by the title, nor a woman as is so often the case in von Trier's work, but instead a by-all-accounts good priest named Father James (Brendan Gleeson), who had joined the church later in life following the death of his wife.
Nonetheless, in Calvary's startling opener, the life of Father James is threatened in the confessional by an unseen parishioner who informs him that he'll be killed as symbolic payback for the sins of an evil man of the cloth who'd raped the victim as a child every other day for five years.
Told he has one week to get his house in order, the unflinchingly calm and determined voice of the parishioner never wavers for a moment before he leaves the confessional with the promise that they’ll meet again—for the final time – on the beach near the hill the following Sunday (in a setting that subtly acknowledges the symbolic title).
Conflicted by the sanctity of the seal of confession and the horrors endured by the victim, James is further troubled by the realization that – given the man's voice and his closeness to the community – he knows precisely who threatened him from word one.
As Calvary alludes from the start, there are far more than a mere Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that roam this otherwise sleepy little (albeit spiritually bankrupt) seaside Irish village.
Every character it seems is a victim, a villain, and/or a witness, and as McDonough takes us on what is purported to be a tour through the father’s seven stages of grief, we ascertain that every single one of its inhabitants (including the Father himself) is suffering from one or another form of PTSD obtained from a cruel twist of life – if not fate.
And this conclusion is only reaffirmed upon the arrival of another walking ghostlike figure in the form of the man's own, grown battle-scarred daughter, Fiona (played by Kelly Reilly), who appears on scene after traveling by train like a character out of a classic western.
Visiting her father to convalesce following a failed suicide attempt brought on by the never explained actions of an unknown man (which serves as a thematic metaphor around which the entire film revolves), Fiona is as troubled as the rest.
Asking us to question issues surrounding the film's major obsessions of culpability, guilt innocence beyond their legal limits and definitions, McDonagh takes his thought-provoking setup and then proceeds to suck the life out of it as we encounter one over-the-top character after another in a production that is as existential it is nonsensical.
Boasting shock-filled monologues about everything from cannibalism to the desire to kill women as revenge for being a virgin as well as urinary vandalism and the offscreen slaughter of a pet, the abysmal characters we encounter along with Father James all battle to suck the life out of him as well like the allegorical vampires that they are.
Having completely overdosed on symbolism; by the time the screen fills with the orange hue of arson and our protagonist shouts up to the heavens "why didn't anybody see?" before another deliberately closes their eyes, we've begun to wonder if there's any viewer left watching Calvary that doesn't desperately want to do the same.
Although he starts out strong in a dark, barely lit corner from where he proceeds to shine a spotlight on religious, moral and existential hypocrisy, McDonagh begins losing his religion as the film continues.
Thus, despite a potent turn by Gleeson and the rest of Calvary's impressive though poorly utilized ensemble cast, Calvary suffers from a crisis of narrative faith that prevents it from following in the footsteps of other filmmakers who found their work at a similar crossroads but dared to venture on full speed ahead.
What could’ve had the potency of superior subgenre efforts such as Doubt, Priest, In the Name Of, The Jewish Cardinal, and/or Philomena as well as the power a two-man Sam Shepard play begins to crucify itself with excess as soon as the Father ventures beyond the parish’s walls.
Intriguingly, Calvary filmmaker John Michael McDonagh is the brother of In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh. And while it's evident that together and separately the two have an awful lot to say about priests as similar scenarios of churchly violence also occur in Bruges, if right now we were asked to follow just one filmic gospel involving Catholic anarchy and hypocrisy – I’d still have to go with Bruges – six years after its release in 2008.
An artistic free for all, Calvary may be gorgeously shot but it plays like an Irish Catholic avant-garde interpretation of High Noon as seen through the eyes of an unlikely trinity comprised of Haneke, von Trier, and David Lynch.
Instead of a dramatic mystery about forgiveness and revenge, Calvary is undone by its devotion to symbolic allegory as well as its old time religion-like love of fire and brimstone level speechifying. Thus, despite its predictable yet admittedly poignant conclusion, try as it might it, McDonagh just can't convert us into cinematic believers.
Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.