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Calvary Review: Quirky Dark Comedy Asks Tough Questions

Brendan Gleeson shines in this unconventionally-funny-serious-soulful film.
I've always loved Actor Brendan Gleeson, his huge presence a startling contradiction to the small roles which have filled his terrific career. With Director John Michael McDonaugh's Calvary, Gleeson gets to spread his wings: the results might have Oscar written on them.

For parent-turned-Father James Lavelle (Gleeson), life in his small town soon takes a drastic turn, as he's threatened by an unknown man during confession. The victim seeks revenge for being being molested by a priest years ago, and Father Levelle becomes the target. But who in his small town would make such a threat? There’s the butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who is suspected of beating his slut-wife (Orla O’Rourke) and her Ivorian-immigrant lover (Isaach De Bankole), as well as the sexually-frustrated Milo (Killian Scott) and the crotchety old American writer (M. Emmet Walsh), who's hell-bent on taking his life before dementia arrives. But with his daughter (Kelly Reilly) arriving in town after her botched suicide, Revelle must keep the secret of his impending death from her, all while helping to rebuild her life. When the end comes, Revelle must stand alone, like the great rocky and unforgiving shores of the Eastern Irish Coast depicted near the town.

Director McDonaugh and Director of Photography Larry Smith deliver a technically precise work, somehow making the characters the center of story behind the beautiful vistas of Ireland's coasts. I'm not talking Lawrence of Arabia here, because the subtlety is so precise instead of so grand. Their characters never seem swallowed by the locations, instead becoming part of the narrative of life in a tough town. Patrick Cassidy’s score sets an immediate tone for each scene, especially the final one, leading us down a pan shot of each villager the moment Lavelle meets his end. It's an exquisite pairing.

There are plenty of roles where one can imagine a whole host of actors portraying - not with Gleeson. He seems perfectly at ease early on, drinking in the fetishes of his town, and perfectly willing to see his promises to the end, even if it means the end of his life. I've always liked his ability to stay behind the curtains, allowing other stars to take the lead. Here he is the perfect rock of Gibraltar, and we are better off for the perfect casting. Other villagers are similarly memorable, from the male prostitute (Owen Sharpe), to the violent atheist doctor (Aiden Gillen). Reilly plays a tortured daughter with the look of someone just trying to hold on, and needing both the father and the Father to mend. Even O'Dowd stretches his comedic legs to turn in a gripping third act performance. But it's Gleeson's Lavelle who reveals the most, from shattered widow and recovering alcoholic to dog lover and sensitive parishioner. His is the new face of the church, but his scars are almost as deep as the ones experienced by so many victims of abuse.

At the heart of Calvary is its message that everyone in town harbors deep resentments - and some even violent anger - towards everything around them, and that Gleeson's efforts to deflect that misery through prayer clearly isn't enough. The resulting indifference serves as the heartbeat of the town, and as such some of faith might turn away at such ugliness. But I'd encourage you to stick around, as this is far more than a proper shunning of church values made possible by the detestable scandals of priestly abuse. Calvary is warm and inviting in parts, filled with hilariously weird characters throughout, and all wrapped around a 'whodunit' as the deadly deed unfolds.

I'm not sure where Calvary switches from bizarre town comedy to serious drama, but by the time gun meets priest, the transition has been perfectly made. It's like a late summer day that starts cool, slowly shifting to warm, before storming and washing away the dirt. But by the time it's over, we know the terrible price innocent and kind people will pay for the church's abuses. And it's not just the final scene that demonstrates this: a wonderful little scene between Lavelle and a little girl near the beach turns ugly when the father angrily snatches her up as if Lavelle was all the evil of the church wrapped into a single person. But it also asks very tough questions about faith: Does God create serial killers? How far can faith go before must abandon it?

It will be interesting to see if Calvary ever makes it into MPAS' self-esteemed Oscar purview. I hope so: it's a rich and satisfying tale of one priest's efforts to calm an angry congregation before his untimely end arrives; but it's so much more than that and thus completely deserving of your attention. Take some time off from the roar of the Summer movie machine by seeing this one and I think you'll be glad you did.

Calvary is rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use and has a runtime of 100 minutes.

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