Sean Burns: Well, Jake, who better, I guess, than two red-faced Irish pricks from Boston to sit down over a couple of pints and jaw on about Calvary, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s mordantly funny and deeply sad meditation on a higher calling in a fallen world. Brendan Gleeson — never not the best thing about pretty much every damn movie he’s ever appeared in– gives a towering performance here as a parish priest in a small town on the rocky shores of Ireland’s County Sligo (amusingly enough, the namesake of a local dive where you and I have been known to raise a glass or two in our time).
We begin in a dark confessional, where an unseen parishioner details his brutal rape at the hands of Catholic clergy as a child, and then announces his intention to murder Gleeson 7 days from now. His rationale is that killing a good priest will hurt the Church far worse than offing just another pederast.
What follows is McDonagh’s rotted-out take on the Stations of the Cross, heavily stylized and explicitly positioned in the wake of the Catholic Church’s molestation cover-ups and the Wall Street financial crisis, with Gleeson’s Dead Man Walking attempting to set his affairs in order and tend to his broke, wildly dysfunctional flock as he slouches towards Golgotha. Calvary is a strange film, often hilarious but always heavy and forlorn.
I know we’re both huge fans of McDonagh’s previous picture, The Guard, which also starred Gleeson as a cheerfully debauched Irish cop teamed with Don Cheadle’s square American DEA agent. That endlessly rewatchable movie was practically a repository of cutting one-liners, which McDonagh can obviously write to beat the band. Yet there’s a great moment early on here when an ex-pat failed novelist played by M. Emmet Walsh (so lovely to see him again) fires off a quip and Gleeson retorts, “That’s something that sounds clever but doesn’t actually mean anything.”
For all of the crackling dialogue in Calvary, so much of it amounts to characters trying to bullshit their way around the inevitable, pleasing themselves to no end by making pseudo-profound nihilistic witticisms that “don’t actually mean anything,” as the stark widescreen shots of those indifferent landscapes and Gleeson’s haunted, seen-it-all shrugs cut right through the banter like a chilly Irish wind. Did you get the same sense that I did, of a killer wordsmith realizing that talk is cheap?
Jake Mulligan: Damn it, Burns. I haven’t even settled into my seat, let alone finished my first drink, and already we’re talking about nihilism. Can’t we go back to discussing The Guard and beers first? The Guard was that type of movie, actually. You threw it on the TV above the bar, and watched most of in between cigarettes and piss breaks, never stopping (or needing) to worry about the scenes that you missed. Calvary makes you want to drink, too, but not the way that The Guard did. I know we like to try and make these conversations at least halfway-lighthearted, but I don’t know that Calvary is going to let us.
Anyway, I agree. McDonagh is trying to deal with the fact that talk is cheap. But he also seems to think the rest of the things we do – the social climbing, the status searching, the fighting, and yes, the drinking – are pretty damn cheap, too. The phrase “Irish-Catholic guilt” is going to come up a fair few times when people talk about this movie. Let’s remember what that guilt really is. It’s existential. It’s about looking at this planet we’ve been given – those stark widescreen shots you note, occasionally evocative of watercolor landscapes (long shots) or religious iconographical art (the close-ups) – and then looking at how badly we’ve fucked it all up. It’s a barbarians-before-the-great-flood sort of shame.
Funnily enough, it’s like John Michael McDonagh and his brother took opposite paths. Martin McDonagh’s first feature was a somber religious allegory (In Bruges) which he followed up with a metatextual genre comedy (Seven Psychopaths). John M. started off with the framework-bending genre comedy, and now he’s moved onto somber religious allegory, complete with references to Robert Bresson movies. And while McDonagh hedges his bets a bit here with the auto-critiques (you mention one instance, but it’s hardly alone; this is the type of movie where the characters call their own speeches “corny”), this is, otherwise, a consistently downbeat film. That’s true whether you see sincere faith in its heart or not. So the question I’m asking you, Burns, defender of the cinema against false gravitas, is this: do you buy it?
SB: Well, what I bought — and I had to see the picture twice to really get a handle on my reaction to it — was that despite McDonagh’s occasionally messy overreaches, this is an extremely moving portrait of a man trying to live his faith in a time and place where such a thing seems damned near impossible. We don’t see priests like this in the movies anymore (you might have to go back to Karl Malden in On The Waterfront for another example) as they’re so often paraded on-screen as punchlines either representing hypocrisy or serving as shorthand for pedophilia. It’s much to Calvary’s credit that the film confronts the fact that this reputation has been well-earned by the Catholic Church, particularly in recent years.
But Gleeson’s Father James is something different. A widower who found his calling late in what some elegant screenwriting insinuations inform us was quite a troubled life, he surveys this venal village with a compassion that never tips into sanctimony, constantly reaching out to his parishioners even though their first instincts are always to burn the bridges he’s trying to build.
And look at the sorry lot of them! You’ve got cuckolded Chris O’Dowd, content to let his battered wife sleep her way around town so at least that way she’ll stop nagging him about his drinking. There’s a millionaire banker literally pissing on expensive works of art simply because he can. A Mephistophelean-looking Aidan Gillen plays a local doctor gone to seed with drugs and whores, while the geekiest young man in town is so sexually frustrated he wants to join the army just so he can kill people with impunity. Even the local police chief can’t be bothered to hide that he’s shacking up now and again with a rent boy from the city.
The only thing all these folks have in common is the verbal abuse they heap on Father James. It’s as if the state of grace he has found is somehow threatening, and the only way they know how to respond to his kindness is with a desperate, defensive derision. Yet he keeps coming back to them, and the marvelously subtle miracle of Gleeson’s performance is in the way he lets us see all their insults and blows land, but continues onward because it is his duty. Calvary reminds us that turning the other cheek requires being able to take a punch.
For my money, the saddest scene (in a movie that’s full of them) is when Father James spends a rare evening out with his community at the local pub that’s about to be foreclosed upon. It’s a dire sprawl of barroom braggadocio, petty fisticuffs, and empty restroom cocaine assignations. When someone finally interrupts to point out: “Father, your church is on fire,” at first I didn’t think the statement was meant to be taken literally.
JM: And that’s exactly what this movie is about – the very concept of faith burning down. It’s about how you may need to be a drunken Irish ubermensch to persevere through the shame religion brings to those who can’t turn a blind eye to all the lives it ruins. There’s one character you left out of your roundup: Father James’ fellow priest, who is quite hilariously berated for his lack of integrity throughout. He’s the kind of man who perks up at the sound of a large donation yet sincerely can’t imagine why anyone would want to burn down a church in the first place. He’s turned his cheek so far that he can’t even see the world around him.
I thought a lot about Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye while watching this movie, and with that, a lot about detective movies in general. Those pictures tend to have a pretty rigid structure: you’ve got the morally righteous (but deeply flawed) protagonist who goes from place-to-place, meeting new faces in most scenes, all of them much less worried about their glaring ethical faults than the P.I. is. All the vice usually causes a late-second-act rupture, and leads to whatever conclusion the author wants to bring things to. The Stations of the Cross reading is more than valid, but you could position Calvary as a sort of pulpy religious noir, too: Gleeson’s James wandering through an ecosystem of sin, like Gould’s Marlowe through Los Angeles, searching for the answer to a question that he doesn’t even know he wants to answer, seeing nothing but lies and battered women and burning churches and lost souls along the way.
This brings us to a point we disagree on, though – whether this is a mystery in the first place. I think so. You don’t. Why not? And if we’re supposed to know who’s threatening James in the first scene, why bother leaving him unidentified throughout the rest of the film?
SB: Excellent call on the Phillip Marlowe angle, but your question is one to which even after seeing the movie a couple of times I still don’t have an answer. Gleeson says from the start he knows the identity of his would-be murderer, and given how recognizable a certain actor’s voice is, I thought it was hardly a mystery. Yet McDonagh presents the eventual revelation as if we’re supposed to be shocked, which doesn’t scan for me at all. There are a few other curious filmmaking choices here that don’t quite sit right. For starters, and I noticed this in The Guard as well, what’s this guy’s deal with primary colors? With the exception of Father James’ spartan living quarters, every interior here is slathered with what looks like a fresh, brand spanking new coat of paint. I found it distracting and not quite explainable why the County Sligo’s stone prison walls are the same red and green as my local pub, but the vividness keys into the movie’s sometimes strange stylistic flourishes. Calvary is not a perfect film by any stretch, but it has stayed with me over these past few months. It’s hard to shake those long shots of the barrel-chested Gleeson in his vintage cassock behind a greying beard, striding along the beach while the tumultuous surf rages around him, a giant of a guy made small by his surroundings. God’s lonely man.