CALVARY: A Movie Review. A Deep and Dark Presentation of the Ways Violence Begets Violence: How Political One Must Be To Navigate This Life: Things Happen No Matter How Hard You Try To Change Them

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Stephen Arch                              

Calvary is just a movie.  That is true. However, the meaning behind the actions display a deeper understanding of how the world actually works.  After watching this drama play itself out in "real time," the audience is given insight into the politics of local.  In reality, this is my meaning of political. Fr. James Lavelle is the ultimate politician in his world, making "deals" with his parishioners and his flock to ensure they achieve ultimate salvation.  Non-compromising politics.  Fr. James will not change his ways because someone wishes to see him fail and even dead.  It is a political study on how one would keep integrity, love, compassion, and, in the end, his life so that other's may be saved.  Sound familiar? Watching this movie gave me more insight into how people must react and interact with other people and maintain their core value and belief system. This movie effectively deals with death, suicide, apathy, anger, betrayal, and murder, isolation, and loneliness.

"John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary shows, with extraordinary vividness, what authentic spiritual shepherding looks like and how it feels for a priest to have a shepherd’s heart. The movie opens in the quiet of the confessional, where Fr. James, played by the always-compelling Brendan Gleeson, waits to receive the confession of a penitent. What he hears, however, is not a list of sins, but a brutal threat: “I will kill you Sunday next. Say we meet on the beach?” The awful words are coming from a man who had been sexually abused, across many years, by a priest and who now wants to seek his revenge by eliminating a man he admits is a good priest. The story then unfolds as Fr. James’s passion week, the stations of the cross, as he makes his way to his own Calvary" (Father Robert Barron, writing in Article on the movie as it relates to the Catholic Church, in Word on Fire).

No SPOILER ALERT here.  It's much more important that you watch this movie and draw your own conclusions. Just know that Calvary portrays a week in the life of Father James Lavelle after he is threatened with death while hearing a parishioner's confession. One of the characters we meet in this quietly violent movie is set on killing Fr. James is kept a mystery until the very last scene. The movie is an intimate portrayal of Fr. James' interactions with the many contradistinctive characters in this quaint Irish village where, although with vast expanses of beautiful openness in the Irish countryside is almost suffocating with the feeling that one cannot move in this town without everyone else knowing what he did.

The highly decorated 2014 movie Calvary is NOT a "feel good" movie and is not for the feint of heart. It is a detailed exploration of the ways that child abuse changes people and the implications it has on the Catholic Church and how Catholic priest and local pastor James Lavelle must deal with his "flock" - showing them much compassion and love while he awaits his death sentence. He has learned to become patient and caring in the face of an increasingly angry townsfolk who don't trust his "bosses" - the Catholic hierarchy and seem to delight in taking out their frustrations on him, which he patiently and paternalistically understands.  He learns to digest vast amounts of insults and criticism because of his role in the community. He is forced to treat insults as if they are complicated word games, and Fr. James chooses to engage these games in hopes of helping his parishioners (and friends) come to grips with their idiosyncratic behavior.  

It is a "violence begets violence," cynical movie full of compassion, love, and also deep hatred toward the Catholic Church.  

Calvary is very minimalist on action yet huge on dialogue. McDonagh creates an air of suffocation, a claustrophobic environment where people are forced, because of the small size of the town, to live with each other, breath each other's air, interact with each other, in a storyline set in an expansive Irish countryside of County Sligo in the northwest of Ireland.

McDonagh juxtaposes these two settings throughout the movie.  On one hand, the openness, the neverending land and water masses are brought together with a smoldering "angry" close-knit townspeople who have a sincere mistrust, disrespect for each other and the Church and are forced to expose these feelings due to the proximity of their lives. McDonagh's use of wide, expansive camera shots of Calvary's are truly breathtaking.  If the audience is not careful, the sensationally stunning views might take front seat to the familiar of the plot.

McDonagh portrays all of this with witty and supercilious dialogue which erupts like verbal explosive diarrhea whenever a character is able to "take a shot" at Fr. James or at each other.

They are people who engage in lewd sexual conduct (none, by the way, shown in the movie) brought out in their "informal" confessions to Fr. James.  They are a lonely, in some cases, suicidal people content with sharing their lives out in the open seemingly to have no regrets. They consist of an apathetic doctor too familiar with death ("Well, if you'll excuse me, Father, I have to go kill someone - Dr. Frank Harte); they are troubled, suicidal young people who can't seem to get their lives together; they are a millionaire mess of a man who takes a whiz on a treasured piece of art, a butcher whose wife has sexual encounters with many men in the town; they are an alter boy who steals drinks of altar wine from the priests; they are a bar owner who is about to lose his business due to foreclosure; they are a male prostitute who takes huge delight in "teasing" Father James; they are a father who scolds his daughter for even speaking with a priest outside of the church sanctuary.  

They are all of us jammed into single personalities forced to coexist in a small town surrounded by beauty and vastness of the hills and sea.  

And, most importantly, they are a man who was abused as a child by a priest who now feels a need to make a public statement pertaining to the guilt he has carried with him all of his life (and we do not know this person until the very last scene). "What good would it do to kill a bad priest?  It's much more of a statement to kill an innocent priest."


  Father James Lavelle (Brandon Gleeson) with his dying dog and daughter Fiona Lavelle (Kelly Reilly)

Father James Lavelle (Brandon Gleeson) with his dying dog and daughter Fiona Lavelle (Kelly Reilly)

As Capone in "Ain't It Cool News" writes

"... CALVARY has a little something uplifting for all of us, with its incredible cast that includes Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen, M. Emmet Walsh and many others, under the guidance of writer-director John Michael McDonagh (THE GUARD, also starring Gleeson), brother of award-winning playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS).

"(It) is easily among Gleeson’s best performances, and I think the dark heart of this film is in many ways countered by his Father James being the only truly good man in the community, and even he has some weighty issues to contend with, not least among them is his possible untimely death. I sat down with the pair last week in Chicago and had a grand time picking their brain about the film’s sly literary references, the death of religion and the grain of hope in this rather bleak but brilliant film. But before we dive into the movie discussion, Gleeson talks about a painful incident that happened to him that very morning—one that will likely impact him for the rest of his life. "

  Fr. James Lavelle (Gleeson) and dispassionate doctor Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen)

Fr. James Lavelle (Gleeson) and dispassionate doctor Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen)

Movies are meant mostly to entertain, to be used as an escape into another world that doesn't touch our own, a chance to laugh, to cry, to chuckle, to flinch - basically to allow us to pour out all of those emotions built up during out busy lives and very busy, messy days.  We go to theaters (cinema and stage) to unwind and to recreate.

However, as was the case with Greek and Roman tragedies, and Shakespearean tragedies, for that matter, the author, playwright, story-teller uses Aristotle's understanding of CATHARSIS as a way to cleanse, to heal, to wake the audience up, to teach a lesson, if one is looking to learn.  We remember our English teachers telling us stories about the "penny-stinkers" or "groundlings" as they were referred to during Shakespeare's time - those who frequented the theatres who were too poor to sit in the expensive seats.  When these common folks attended tragedies, villain beware! Villains were often pelted by pieces of fruit or vegetables (or worse) when the audience disagreed with them. Audience participation was crucial to achieving real catharsis - to create passion toward the characters.

The same is true today.  Audiences increasingly are looking for that message, that light, that hope, that presentation of feelings that are held tightly inside them with a chance to release this anxiety or to express their joy.  Now more than ever, I suppose.

Often great joy is received through the saddest of sorrows.  Often times, movie and theater-goers just want to be entertained.  Nothing is wrong with watching and laughing along with the antics in a movie such as The HangoverBridesmaids, or other laughingly silly movies such as these (think any movie directed by Judd Apatow).  

Humorous plots.  Excellent actors.  Silly.  Cathartic, but in a different way.  

But not in the way that a movie such as Calvary instills in the audience.  It's the type of movie where one is afraid to laugh, even at the "real" jokes in the movie, knowing the subject matter. And, because of the thick brogue spoken by the characters, the audience is "forced" by McDonagh to listen intently to every line uttered by these marvelously bitter, unlikeable characters:

Bartender (speaking matter-of-factly):  Father, your church is on fire.
Fr. James (disinterested, learned behavior of not get into a pissing match with anyone, not looking up from his drink):  You don't have to tell me anything I already know.
Bartender: No. I mean your church really is on fire  
(cut to Fr. James' church engulfed in flames)

Father Leary: I didn't realise you hated me that much.
Father James: I don't hate you, at all.
Father Leary: Then, why all of those nasty things you said about me last night?
Father James: It's just you have no integrity. That's the worst thing I could say about anybody.

The Writer: You know how you can tell when you're really getting old?
Father James: How?
The Writer: No-one ever says the word 'death' around you any more.

The movie, slow in action but keen in wit and dialogue, was released in 2014.  The repartee is quick paced and relies on heavy doses of cynicism and back-handed, dark compliments, as well as a direct, in your face, realism that is all too familiar in society today.  

Jack Brennan: I think she's bipolar, or lactose intolerant, one of the two.

Father James (speaking to a women who's husband just died in a car accident): He was a good man, your husband?                                                                                                                      Teresa: Yes. He was a good man. We had a very good life together. We loved each other very much. And now... he has gone. And that is not unfair. That is just what happened. But many people don't live good lives. They don't feel love. That is why it's unfair. I feel sorry for them.

Father Leary: Things you hear in confession these days. It's depressing.                                   Father James Lavelle: You have to detach yourself from it. We're here to provide solace. Your personal feelings don't come into it.                                                                                                       Father Leary: I know that. What do you take me for? It's difficult, though, the mess people make of their lives.                                                                                                                                             Father James Lavelle: What's the problem? Without going into details, obviously.                          Father Leary: Your one with the big black eye on her. Have you seen her?                                   Father James Lavelle: Veronica Brennan, yeah.                                                                             Father Leary: She's an odd one. The things she comes out with. It's like she's trying to drag you down into the muck. Do you know what felching is?                                                                 Father James Lavelle: I do know what felching is, do you?                                                              Father Leary: I had to look it up.                                                                                                 Father James Lavelle: This is you not going into details, is it?

Father James: I've always felt there's something inherently psychopathic about joining the army in peacetime. As far as I'm concerned, people join the army to find out what its like to kill someone. I hardly think that's an inclination that should be encouraged in modern society, do you? Jesus Christ didn't think so, either. And the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" does not have an asterisk beside it, referring you to the bottom of the page where you find a list of instances where it's okay to kill people.                                                                                         Milo Herlihy: What about self defense?                                                                                                 Father James Lavelle: That's a tricky one, all right. But we're hardly being invaded, though, are we?                                                                                                                                                             Milo Herlihy: The war on terror has no borders.                                                                                 Father James Lavelle: I don't think Sligo is too high on Al-Quaeda's agenda, Milo, do you?           Milo Herlihy: Who knows what goes on in the Muslim mind?

The story begins with this macabre humor which smacks of mystery as well as self-loathing:

Father James:  What do you want to say to me? I'm here to listen to whatever you have to say.

Penitent (whose face we do not see):  I'm going to kill you, father.

Father James:  Certainly a startling opening line.

Father James:  Why don't you kill the priest who molested you?

Penitent:   I'm gonna kill you 'cause your innocent.  There's no point in killin' a bad priest. Besides, he's already dead.  But killin' a good one. That'll be a shock!


  Troubled husband and butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O'Dowd) - You may know him as Kristin Wiig's love interest in the above mentioned "Bridesmaids"

Troubled husband and butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O'Dowd) - You may know him as Kristin Wiig's love interest in the above mentioned "Bridesmaids"

Father James, who obviously is considered by his parishioners and the townspeople as a good person (with a past); nevertheless, he is the spiritual leader of his small community, of which some deeply do not like his piousness and his attempts to interfere with their "souls."  The cast is a true mixture of personalities:  a cocaine abusing doctor (Aiden Gillen), a sex addict wife of Brennan's (Orla O'Rourke), a wealthy and very lonely millionaire whose wife and children leave him and who moves into a mansion, all alone (Michael Fitzgerald), Father James' daughter (his wife died and he then became a priest) played by Kelly Reilly, an American writer who is living in town to finish a novel (M. Emmett Walsh), and a large ensemble cast of miscreants, angry outliers, and those who appear to not really like Father James all that much because he is honest with them and definitely brings out the "worst" in them all by pointing out the obvious. Yet they all, one by one, lean on him, draw him deeper into their very real sins.

  Fionna LaVelle (Kelly Reilly) Fr. James' suicidal daughter

Fionna LaVelle (Kelly Reilly) Fr. James' suicidal daughter

Fr. James does set out to do "good" in his community.  However, "in all of his interactions with the townspeople, he encounters an underlying cynicism about faith, religion, and most especially the Catholic Church. Father James is a good man who has battled alcohol problems, his wife’s untimely death, and the addiction issues of his daughter. It’s clear that no one in the town has much respect for the authority of the church. It’s intimated throughout the film that the priest abuse scandal has left this tiny little town with little else but scorn for the church and her ministers" ("The Movie Calvary and What It Tells Us About Sexual Abuse" - Gilion Dumas, 2014).  

Which character wishes to kill Fr. James?  Who has an ax to grind with the Catholic Church? Which character was molested when a child by a Catholic priests and feels the only way to make his case is to kill an innocent?  Is it the atheistic doctor who refers to Fr. James' use of spiritual tools as "totems" that assist in helping the sorrowful when death is eminent?  Is it the lonely millionaire who has no regard for life and has blatantly given up on living?  Is it the immigrant from the Ivory Coast who bears a grudge against the Catholic faith and who doesn't like being "lectured to" by Fr. James (and who is also having an affair with the butcher's wife)? Is it the "out of place," awkward loner who isolates himself from the rest of the world, is afraid of women, and is buried in pornography (and who feels that his only way to attract women is to join the army)?  Is it the angry bar owner who is not Catholic and does not respect Fr. James or his beliefs?  It could be any one of them. That's the beauty of this work.  Lifetimes are understood based on a single, poignant, laconic exchange - usually consisting of only a statement followed by a response.  The brevity with which McDonagh develops his characters is staggering, contrasted, again, by the outstretched visual portrayal of their world.

That is the beauty of this work.  The anticipation, the second guessing, the intense scrutinizing of each character who has a past of some sort with Fr. James is what keeps the audience on its toes and at the edge of its collective seat.  The cinematography is beautiful, pleasant, relaxing, yet extremely rough, desolate, and foreboding - the vastness of the plains, the mountains, the ocean all work in harmony with the secrecy of each character.  

This part thriller, part "who done it," part psychotic battle between the forces of good and evil is worth the view and worth the cost of the movie.  Because of the beautiful scenery of the Irish countryside, the quick witted writing of the dialogue, and the underlying beauty of hatred caused by a truly lost group of people makes Calvary worth the price of renting or purchasing. However, I would be careful to not actually purchase this movie. It is a "see only once" experience that will haunt you long after the 102 minutes. 

Some questions remain about this movie.  First, you need to see it to understand it as a thriller. For that reason, I won't "spoil" the ending for you.  The audience is forced almost, but not quite, to the edge of their seats, anticipating the climactic final scene.

We are left asking ourselves -why does Father James go to the ocean to meet his killer if he is sure indeed that the threat is serious? What has transpired in the past hour that begs for Fr. James to meet his executioner on that Sunday?  McDonagh pushes you back to evaluate past commentary as the movie closes.  McDonagh does this extremely well.  He presents us with a conclusion, but then forces us to re-examine every conversation.

Also, and this is important, in our modern world, this movie clearly demonstrates the idea that it is NOT the gun or weapon that kill people.  It confirms the notion that it is people who kill other people.  That cannot be disputed.  That is understanding Calvary.  As the introduction of the movie, again, seems to mention this in passing:  Do not DESPAIR one of the thieves was SAVED. Do not PRESUME one of the thieves was DAMNED.  Much is asked of the audience to endure the psychological torture that leads to a cleansing in this movie. Calvary is worth the cost of getting one's hands, and minds, dirty.