The best new film in theaters this week is a very simple one. There are no spaceships, no mini-guns or grenade launchers, just people. Flawed people living in a flawed world full of tragedy.
The haunting and tragic “Calvary” is easily one of the year’s best films, though it is by no means a perfect film.
Starring Irishman Brendan Gleeson and featuring his son Domhnall in a captivating bit part (both were staples in the Harry Potter film series), “Calvary” is the story of a small-town clergyman, Father James Lavelle (Gleeson), who opens the slide in the confessional one day to find a parishioner telling a story of childhood sex abuse at the hands of a priest. Instead of confessing, the parishioner tells Father Lavelle that to avenge his suffering, and to send a message to the world, he’s going to kill Lavelle. Not because Lavelle is guilty, but because he’s not… because killing a guilty priest wouldn’t accomplish as much, whereas killing an innocent priest would get more attention.What unfolds is a weeklong journey with the small town priest — what just might turn out to be his last week. The killer promised to give Lavelle a week to get his affairs in order, and the two would meet on the following Sunday — set to be Lavelle’s last.
“Calvary” is an exploration of humanity as deep and profound as any I’ve seen. There are no really ‘good’ characters. Instead, the film is populated with people full of flaws, hopes, dreams, and in some cases, lost hopes and abandoned dreams.
Over the course of what may be Lavelle’s final week on Earth, we meet a series of characters in the life of this small-town priest, including his troubled daughter with a mysterious past, played by Kelly Reilly (the 2009 film adaptation of “Sherlock Holmes”), a local butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who has roughed up his cheating wife (Orla O’Rourke), and a number of other townfolk who either call upon the parish priest for help, or who he interacts with on a daily basis.
We suspect early on, and then the film confirms, that Lavelle knows the identity of his would-be killer, though “Calvary” goes to great lengths to keep the audience guessing, while Lavelle goes on to interact with all the townfolk — including presumably his future assassin — without an outright confrontation. It’s difficult to say whether Lavelle goes on throughout the week hoping that by his inaction, the would-be killer might change his mind, or whether Lavelle secretly wishes for an end to his own quite tragic existence.
Lavelle’s faith in God is never really in question. Rather, the crucial question is whether his apparent faith in his fellow man is misplaced.
There are a few plot points that created a bit of mystery — both during and after the story of this one week in Father Lavelle’s life. I’m still not quite sure if there was, in fact, a hidden sub-plot or not, and whether if so, Lavelle was actually aware of it or not. That, to me, is the single weak point in the film.
Shot beautifully along the sparsely populated northern Irish coast in County Sligo, the combination of rich green grasses and predominantly overcast skies create an appropriate mood of somber despair.
Masterfully directed by John Michael McDonagh, who penned the script while he and Gleeson were working on the 2011 movie “The Guard,” the film manages to place a sharp focus on the nature of our humanity and faith, while never becoming either overtly preachy or blasphemous.
Put simply, “Calvary” is one of the most emotionally gripping, and emotionally draining, films I’ve ever encountered.
Brendan Gleeson is without doubt one of my favorite actors, and that affinity is primarily due to his work in “The Guard” and “Calvary.”
Made for just $8 million, “Calvary” has already grossed more than $6 million in the U.K., and opens here in the U.S. in a limited number of theaters this weekend, expanding to more screens over the next few weeks.