Movie Review: “Calvary” – A Darkly Lit Journey

Written by Jesse Gelinas July 18, 2014

Chris O'Dowd in "Calvary"

People are faced with hard choices everyday. But what about a priest, sworn by sacrament to keep confessions a secret, whose life is threatened in one of these very confessions? “Calvary” explores this dark situation, and other Catholic problems, against the backdrop of a cynical Irish village, led by its weary priest, who may not have long to live.


McDonagh’s “Calvary” follows a week in the life of Irish priest, James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), who’s been threatened by a parishioner in confession. The man suffered molestation at the hands of a priest as a child, and will take his revenge on Father James since the perpetrator is already dead. James doesn’t know whether to take the threat seriously, and is unsure how to handle it regardless. What follows is a tense, solemn week around James’ village as he tries to offer spiritual guidance to his parishioners and friends, while also contemplating his possibly imminent murder.

“I’m gonna kill you, Father, because you’ve done nothing wrong.”

Clarification might be needed for the uninitiated. John Michael McDonagh is the filmmaker behind “The Guard” and now “Calvary”. He is the brother of Martin McDonagh, who made “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths”. They just happen to make similarly themed films, with a similar crop of actors. John isn’t quite the writer his brother is, but “Calvary” is still a finely written film. The dialogue is real and grounded, and the story explores some of the darker corners of the Church, particularly in Ireland.

Dylan Moran in "Calvary"

This is the only time I’ve seen Dylan Moran with combed hair.

McDonagh does share one tremendous quality with his brother, and that is to take terribly dark subject matter and still find ways to make it funny, even just at moments. “Calvary” is covered with a thin layer of deeply black humour that offers moments of levity on this darkly-lit journey toward the end. Dylan Moran offers most of these comedic moments as a semi-deranged millionaire looking to buy himself some penance for his past sins (of which he notes, “all sins are past, or they wouldn’t be sins”). Aidan Gillen turns in a fine performance as the town’s atheistic doctor who butts heads with Father James on multiple occasions. It was hard to separate Gillen from his “Game of Thrones” role as Littlefinger, but he’s enjoyable to watch regardless. Chris O’Dowd (of “The IT Crowd”) also shows up in the darkest role I believe he’s ever taken, and he does just terrifically among this crop of fine Irish talent.

“No one has a bad word to say about him. Makes you wonder what he’s hiding.”

The film is carried, however, by Brendan Gleeson, truly one of the best actors working today. I would be surprised but in no way disappointed if his name doesn’t come up again come awards season. His turn as Father James is relatable, humourous, and ultimately tragic. He’s an old fashioned man of faith, who’s seemingly laughed at by everyone in town. This culminates in a scene where the local church burns, and everyone but him can’t seem to do anything but stare and drink. The film takes on a bit of a noir-ish feel with James present in every scene, as he moves around town trying to solve everyone’s problems but his own.

Brendan Gleeson and Aidan Gillen in "Calvary"

Don’t tell me Littlefinger isn’t plotting something with that disguise.

“Calvary” has many fourth-wall breaking moments that are quite interesting, given its dark tone. After hearinf the killer’s first words, Father James remarks “that’s a startling opening line.” After reconciling with his daughter, we hear “how’s that for a third act revelation?” Aidan Gillen also refers to himself as “the Atheist character”. These are odd moments of levity, but the McDonagh brothers seem to enjoy their films having a self-reflexive edge, many jokes referencing specific aspects of the plot or characters themselves.

“I could piss on this, you know.”

After seeing “Calvary” I have to commend John McDonagh. His brother Martin has had the Oscar noms and recognition, but he himself is a damn fine filmmaker. I would actually be curious now to see a film co-written by the brothers and directed by John. It just might end up their masterpiece. For now, “Calvary” is a dark, brooding film with some surprisingly funny moments that will have you contemplating some real moral questions throughout. Brendan Gleeson gives a performance in much need of a golden statue. Overall, just a truly remarkable bit of filmmaking.

My Rating: 9/10

Theatrical poster for "Calvary"

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About Jesse Gelinas

After years attempting to escape the Matrix, Jesse has accepted his fate as a writer and Senior Editor. Now that's he finished with his film degree, it gives him something to do while waiting for the machines to get careless.

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