Review: ‘Calvary,’ An Irish Film About Alcohol, Catholicism, And Death

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John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary opens today in a handful of smaller markets (it’s been out in New York and LA for a few weeks). Here is my original review from the Berlin Film Festival. 

Irish People Problems

It’s probably unfair that John Michael McDonagh will constantly be compared to his fellow filmmaker brother, Martin McDonagh, but I’m going to do it anyway because to pretend not to would just be ridiculous. Now then: I tend to think of John Michael as the brother who wants to tell you a story, and of Martin as the brother who wants to whine about you wanting him to tell you a story. I base this solely on a comparison of their last movies, John Michael’s cuss-mouthed crowd pleaser The Guard, vs. Martin’s mostly pointless riff on crowd pleasers, Seven Psychopaths. (A comparison that’s thoroughly unfair to Martin, whose In Bruges is probably the best of the three).

The common threads between the two are Irishness, humorous dialog, violence, and a dark sense of humor. After watching Calvary, I have to wonder if other familial traits are a tendency towards navel-gazing and the sophomore slump. Sad face, I know, I loved The Guard as much as anyone.

That’s not to say Calvary doesn’t get off to a promising start. Like The Guard and In Bruges before it, Calvary reteams a McDonagh brother with Brendan Gleeson, a small town, and someone having a gun for some reason (that classic Macguffin). These three ingredients, when stirred with a few heaping spoonfuls of vulgar, adversarial discourse, have combined to create something so delicious in the past that it’s hard not to expect it again here. And perhaps expectation is part of the problem (something I’m always telling my lovers).

Brendan Gleeson plays a put upon priest in a small Irish town. A town I initially thought was called Calvary, like the title, because I never went to catechism when I was younger to learn that it’s the spot where Jesus was crucified (okay, so what’s “Golgotha?”). Nope, I guess it’s some kind of Jesus metaphor, and thank goodness, one can never have too many of those. Gleeson’s priest is the kind of guy who’s quick with a joke, and the type of stand-up personality who’ll try to track down the culprit when a promiscuous young parishioner shows up to church with a black eye one day to try to set things right. In short, a good man. One morning he gets a confessor telling him that in one week, he’s going to be murdered. The caller explains that he was raped by priest as a boy and he wants revenge. Why not go after the actual priest who did the raping instead of Gleeson, a sensitive widower who joined the priesthood after his wife died? Because, the caller says, there’s no point in killing a bad priest. But killing a good one, now that’d be a shock.

The phone call is basically the entire movie, laying out the beginning, the end, and everything in between. While it’s something of a provocative premise, it’s not really a story. “The good priest! That’s so rare to see these days,” a British critic tells me after the movie. Sure, but like un-witty gay friend or the unklutzy rom-com heroine, writing one character against type doesn’t make a movie, does it? “Everyone knows most movie priests are pricks. What our movie presupposes is, maybe this one isn’t?”

We do get to meet an occasionally interesting assortment of small-town personalities, including the aforementioned promiscuous lady, her compellingly surly some-time African lover/mechanic, a butcher played by Chris O’Dowd, a rich prick who made out like a bandit while helping crash the economy (a crash felt more acutely in Ireland than just about anywhere), and the militantly atheist doctor played by Mayor Carcetti/Little Finger. The twist is that, rather than the good priest going around helping people solve their small-town problems, Gleeson’s priest does his best to help people, while everyone shits on him for representing the patriarchal system that has wronged them. The black mechanic ashes his cigarette on the priest’s vestments. The jovial butcher laughs at him. The atheist doctor needles him with constant anecdotes about why God can’t possibly be real, and if he is real he must be a real prick. This last culminating in a story about a 3-year-old who goes under for a tonsil surgery, and wakes up deaf, blind, and paralyzed thanks to an anesthesiologist’s error. “Forever trapped inside his own dark prison, without even the ability to ask or understand why he’s been put there,” Carcetti says, really gilding the “everything sucks” lily.

It feels like McDonagh wants us all to feel bad, but I’m not sure why. Because Catholicism? Because Capitalism? Because the world is an unfair, shitty place? So what? Isn’t the goal of art to transcend the oppressive bubble of our disappointing reality? Or at least tell us something about it that we don’t already know? There just isn’t much of an arc. The townspeople take out their issues on the poor old priest, who just has to man up and take it on the chin (because Jesus, I suppose). Over and over again. It’s all fetishized suffering, like maybe McDonagh wants us all to have a drink and a cry and sing a song about how much the world sucks. I don’t know, I’m trying to give McDonagh the benefit of the doubt here, because his scenes are wittily written and enjoyably staged even when he isn’t saying much. For me it felt like a lot of symbolism without much story. I don’t have conflicted issues with a strict Catholic upbringing (other than the issues I had with my high school girlfriend’s strict Catholic upbringing) that might help me better appreciate watching a good priest have to atone for the sins of his forebears in an increasingly atheist world. Is that cathartic for the lapsed Catholics? I get the sense that it might be, but for me it felt like a series of insidery asides about chants I never learned the words to.

I don’t mind a bleak movie or a depressing movie, but I can’t get down with romanticized melancholy for its own sake. Like Place Beyond the Pines before it, Calvary settles hard into a film about inevitability in its third act. And I have a hard time finding insight in a closed circle of inevitability. If everything the characters do is inevitable, why did we even bother? If the writer is the God of his movie universe, he’s got to give his characters free will at some point just to keep things interesting.


Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.