Not 10 minutes into John Michael McDonagh’s smartass passion play Calvary, a priest walks onto a beach in the noonday gloom, cassock blowing in the wind like a duster. Cutting through the waves is a lone surfer while a half a mile away a group of men on horseback tear up the sand. The priest and the overcast skies are the only thing that place the beach in Ireland. These sights could be found deep in the deserts of Morocco or along the beaches south of Los Angeles. We’re someplace mythic, a landscape carved out of a cinematic unconscious.
The priest has just been told by a visitor to his confessional that he’s not long for this world. Calvary begins by chewing on the fourth wall like a lion tearing into a gazelle. “I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old,” a man confesses to Brendan Gleeson’s troubled Father Lavelle. “Nothing to say?” taunts the unseen man, forcing Lavelle to reply: “It’s certainly a startling opening line.” McDonagh routinely calls attention to himself as a writer in this way—the third man in the confessional. The man then informs Lavelle that because a priest raped him as a child, he’s going to kill Lavelle the following Sunday. Murdering him, a “good priest,” one who found religion late in life in order to better himself, will be a completely random act of violence because that’s how his violation felt. Lavelle makes a concerted effort to do something with his remaining time on earth, to set right a few wrongs. This includes close dealings with no fewer than three suicidal souls, a widow, and a man on death row.
McDonagh means to make everyone appear to be Judas Iscariot on the road to the crucifixion—including his hard-drinking, self-hating Christ figure Lavelle. The Ireland of Calvary is the same sort of place as the old West of James Frawley’s Kid Blue or, more to the point, the Vietnam of John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Big enough to hold all of a country’s problems and archetypes, small enough that you can’t ever be alone. Despite the range of splendid, sticky accents, Calvary is as much about America as Ireland, and as much about John Milius’s worldview as McDonagh’s. Like Milius, the Irish-born McDonagh was a screenwriter who picked up a camera (his debut was 2011’s The Guard) partly to better showcase his arrestingly florid syntax. But where Milius was content to let his gifts run rampant, McDonagh follows an effulgent bon mot with a smartass retort to beat the band. “My entire life has been an affectation,” says an ancient writer played by M. Emmet Walsh trying to wax poetic about his life. Gleeson is only too happy to cut him down to size: “That's one of those lines that sounds witty but doesn't actually make any sense.” All throughout Calvary it’s poetry first, then the punch line.
In The Guard, McDonagh’s story of gunrunners and its castanet-inflected score by Calexico tells us we're watching a Gaelic Western, even if the visual compositions never measured up. It was a film that let you sink a little too deeply into your chair, hand-delivering every payoff, comic or dramatic. Calvary occasionally gets carried away but never lets its feet leave the ground for long. After all, one of them’s in the grave. It’s a mystery after a fashion, a who-gonna-doit, and McDonagh’s words and images keep pace nicely to keep the audience on their toes. Calvary takes its spiritual cues as much from the Bible as from this advice given to the hero of Conan the Barbarian: “No one on earth can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts.” Father Lavelle learns this the hard way.
If The Guard is an attempt at a wry, re-imagined Western, Calvary is almost a modern giallo, alive with emphatic religious imagery, beautiful vibrant colours, rapturous locations, and ominous figures obscuring the identity of a would-be killer. The chief difference between Calvary and What Have You Done to Solange? is that no blood is shed until the final reel. McDonagh turns Lavelle’s calm Irish town into a wriggling den of thieves—and world-class thieves at that. Besides Walsh, the cast is rounded out by Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankolé, and Gleeson’s son Domhnall. The priest is also no saint, swimming around in the muck with all the red herrings (as in many giallo films, the actual voice of the killer is disguised to prevent the audience from guessing correctly before the reveal). This choice of visual language allows McDonagh to treat everyone alternately like a divine vision or a guilty party. He frequently places Gleeson in dutch tilts with an angry sky at his back like one of Milius’s Hyberborean warriors, part invader, part messenger. Lavelle never tries to solve his own murder—that’s up to the viewer—because deep down he can’t shake the feeling that he might deserve it.
Like Milius’s Red Dawn or Big Wednesday, Calvary is imbued with a certain conservative privilege; Lavelle is mocked openly for his beliefs, his church is defaced, and parents make a big show of hiding their children from him. McDonagh wants the audience to know his hero doesn’t deserve these particular humiliations, but he’s equally quick to point out that Lavelle is just as flawed as anyone filling up his pews. The priest is as much of a trial for his parishioners as they are for him. He’s the priest they, and by extension the rest of us, deserve. In Calvary’s cruel turnabout, McDonagh portrays compassion as all that separates us from animals, even if it kills us.