There are plenty of filmmaking sibling duos out there – the Coen Brothers, the Dardenne brothers, the Wachowskis – but it’s rare for them to work completely independently of each other.
In 2008, playwright Martin McDonagh made his break into film with In Bruges, a dark comedy about two hitmen hiding out in the Medieval Flemish city; three years later, his brother John Michael McDonagh made his film debut in the form of The Guard, about a hedonistic but thoughtful Connemara constable. Both films featured Brendan Gleeson, who now also stars in John Michael’s second film, Calvary.
Gleeson here plays Father James Lavelle, a priest and fundamentally decent man who tends to his proverbial flock in rural Ireland. One of his parishioners, however, a victim of systematic child abuse, plans to murder him for the sins of other Fathers.
As he’s informed of in the confessional, James has till Sunday next to put his affairs in order, at which point he’s to head down to the local beach like a lamb to the slaughter. James knows who his would-be killer is, but he’s not saying, and Calvary as a film is more interested in the mysteries of the soul than the man seeking to end James’ life.
While not as funny as either In Bruges or The Guard, Calvary has the same ironic self-awareness as the latter and dramatic stakes that rival the former, though it’s arguably a more mature film than either. In the lead role, Gleeson is magnificent, showing a gruff, understated compassion that belies his private doubts and failings.
Rather too fond of the sauce and at one point at somewhat absent father to his grownup daughter (Kelly Reilly), he also has to contend with the indulgences of his eclectic congregation, one of whom, of course, intends to kill him at the allotted time and place.
Through his somewhat episodic interactions with characters the likes of a gleefully grim doctor (a croaky-voiced Aidan Gillan) and mutton-headed local butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a detachedly entitled financier (Dylan Moran) and imprisoned cannibalistic serial killer (Domnhall Gleeson, holding the screen against his dad), Calvary examines Father James as a man whose faith and forbearance are pushed to the limit.
The film plays with grand religious themes, like guilt and redemption – and the supporting cast is great – and refuses to offer easy answers, other than perhaps the hope of forgiveness.
Calvary is a genuinely ennobling work of cinema and one that makes John Michael McDonagh out as a major talent. With its gallows humor and operatic ending, it would have been easy for it to fall into self-reverence or grandeur, but, simply put, it doesn’t. The McDonaghs have become a bit of a cottage industry in recent years, though they’ve proved more or less inimitable – as shown by somewhat feeble impersonations like Perrier’s Bounty (which also featured Gleeson).
With another great role for the brothers’ muse and a real rough-hewn thematic richness, Calvary is truly an advocate for sibling rivalry.