Gleeson stuns in darkly humorous, thought-provoking ‘Calvary’

By Ian Flanagan / Staff Writer


Directed by: John Michael McDonagh

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd

Grade: B+

It’s surprising when tragedy and comedy overlap in life, and when movies sucessfuly combine the two, it’s especially alluring. “Calvary” meshes the categories with ease — it’s an ambiguous film in which the humorous and disturbing occur with realistic frequency but never quite flirt with the sensational.

Director John Michael McDonagh carries over many key strengths from his debut in the underrated comic romp, “The Guard.” Some of these repeated elements include a masterful lead performance from Brendan Gleeson and decidedly Irish sensibilities within the script. It blends mild macabre and melancholy and soaks in droll but underplayed humor. 

The film begins with a death threat. Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a good priest and a wearied widower, listens in confusion as someone just inches away during the confession threatens to kill him within a week. During these seven days, the priest’s kind-hearted but suicidal daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) visits him, and this is perhaps the only pleasant encounter throughout the film. His professional disapproval of his fellow pastor Father Leary (David Wilmot) also surfaces, and he counsels various strange characters, including Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran and Aidan Gillen, within the story’s remote, picturesque Irish town.

Though the film’s title is synonymous with suffering, “Calvary” is far less bleak than it should be. It can be harrowing at times, but “Calvary” is largely an introspective film, as the mystery of the anonymous religious assassin is balanced with heavy existentialist ideas, some of which even stretch beyond the confines of strictly Christian thinking. For instance, what should religious concern be more focused on: sin or virtue? McDonagh’s mature film intertwines black comedy with stern, thought-provoking drama and some deeply inquisitive philosophical exploration.

The result is a strange film that’s as confident in its weirdness and abstraction as much of the Coen Brothers’ output. The film asks tough questions and gives even tougher answers. Every revelation is somber but shrouded in hope.

For all the morose story elements and challenging artsiness,  “Calvary’s” warmly funny undertones endure. Gleeson is already equipped with smart timing, and the script lets him show it, mostly during his brilliant interactions with the partially obtuse townspeople. Father James’ discussion with young Milo (Killian Scott) about his possible enlistment with the army is hilarious and insightful. The supporting cast is extraordinary in providing the necessary comic relief, but each character is also so believably flawed that it only makes the film more realistic. 

A sparing but powerful score, tender cinematography and the added bonus of stunning Irish landscapes all contribute to the film’s peculiar but irresistible cinematic effect. Hearty, understated and wryly intelligent, “Calvary” is the opposite of what its title suggests — it’s a downright pleasure.

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