Taking Calvary seriously

This post contains ‘major’ spoilers, and should not be read by anyone who plans to see Calvary but has not done so yet.

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh), although it contains comedic elements, is a film that seems to want to be taken seriously.  In support of this suggestion, we might point initially to features of the film such as its somber, white-on-black opening quotation from St Augustine (‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.  Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.’), or its swelling soundtrack, which serves to emphasise the intended poignancy of key dramatic moments.  We might also point to the film’s trailer, which positions it within the realm of art cinema, and much of its critical reception, which offers it as a film with something to say.  If the film’s ending is to secure the effects that it seems to be seeking, then the viewer needs, ultimately, to view the film’s characters as beings capable of authentic suffering and moral decision-making.  This, at least, is what I want to argue, and I also want to argue that Calvary fails to satisfactorily reconcile its comedic and dramatic dimensions, resulting in a film that, although accomplished and enjoyable almost throughout, ultimately fails to hang together.

Calvary begins with Father James (Brendan Gleeson) sitting in the confession booth.  What he receives though is not a confession but a death threat.  The man in the other half of the booth (kept offscreen throughout the scene) tells Father James that he will give him a week to put his ‘house in order’, then come looking for him on the beach the following Sunday.  The proposed act is a combination of punishment and public statement.  ‘I’m going to kill you ‘cos you’re innocent’, Father James is told.  Killing a bad priest, the man reasons, wouldn’t be news; killing a good priest will be more shocking.  We also learn of the would-be killer’s motive: he was sexually abused over a period of years by another priest (now dead).

By Calvary‘s end, Father James has been shot, point blank, in the head by parishioner Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd).  What happens in between to deliver us to this climactic moment of violence?

The film’s trailer and its opening scene suggest that Calvary might offer us a suspenseful ‘who’s-going-to-do-it?’ structure, in which we are offered the pleasure of trying to identify the killer before he commits his murder, and perhaps the pleasure of watching Father James trying to do the same, or at least to evade his date with death.  However, the killer’s identity remains undisclosed to the viewer until the scene on the beach, and the scenes in between the declaration and the act offer us, time and again, the dysfunction and misanthropy of virtually all of residents of Father James’s parish, without giving us any means of singling out one character over the others as a killer, or, really, any dramatic or structural reason for wanting to (after all, unlike in most detective fiction, where much hangs on the criminal’s motive, the lack of motive against Father James specifically means that the killing will be equally arbitrary whoever commits it).  Father James does not try to identify the would-be killer, because, having recognised his voice, he already knows who he is.  This, at least, is what he tells the Bishop, and there is no reason to disbelieve him.  However, Father James does not identify the man to the Bishop (not even after the church is burned down much later in the film), nor to anyone else, and he is similarly poker-faced in his interactions with all the parishioners.  Even when one watches the film a second time, knowing that Jack is the one who has threatened murder, and knowing that Father James knows this (and, probably, that Jack knows that Father James knows), one’s understanding of the two characters’ interactions is not, I would suggest, altered in any significant way.  Rather than being dramatically- and suspensefully-driven, Calvary is predominantly structured around Father James going about his priestly duties: presiding over Communion, seeking to intervene among unhappily-married parishioners, offering spiritual guidance, visiting the aged and the dying, working alongside a fellow priest, reporting to his Bishop, and so on.  Not until Father James has been killed does the camera leave his side.  The film unfolds as a series of strands, in which we witness the protagonist’s encounters with a range of secondary characters.

The best of these secondary characters are Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a banker who ‘got out’ just before the crash and now (divorced from his wife, estranged from his children and even abandoned by his maid) lives alone in a giant house on the edge of town; Father Leary (David Wilmot), Father James’s craven fellow parish priest; and Freddie Joyce, a cannibal prisoner (played by Domhnall Gleeson, eldest son of Brendan).  Michael and Father Leary have the most satisfying character trajectories in the film.  They are also the characters whose behaviours resonate with their social roles in a manner lacking in the rest of the secondary characters.  Michael, who takes a work of art (Holbein’s The Ambassadors) off his wall and pisses on it (a logical if extreme follow-up to his declaration ‘I don’t have to know what it means; I own it, that’s enough’) clearly stands in for a whole financial class that only deals in one kind of value at the severe expense of other values and other people (as Father James’s response makes [probably over-]explicit: ‘People like you have pissed on everything else I suppose’).  But this, in the case of Michael’s character, is not a problem for the film, because there is no conflict between this role and other things the film wants to do with him.  Even near the end, when Michael articulates his sense of detachment, this does not feel like a rewriting of the character to suit the demands of the moment, but the character arriving at and articulating an understanding of the behaviour we have seen from him up to this point.  Father Leary is shown to be a man whose way of moving through the world is to avoid conflicts that might leave him vulnerable to censure or reproach, even if this entails (as it inevitably does) that he compromises his own moral standing in the process.  The key example, dramatically well-handled, comes when he warns Father James off intervening in a situation in the parish involving adultery and domestic violence simply because one of the people involved is black (his weaselly justification is that this makes it a ‘matter of diversity’).  Father James’s ultimate denunciation of Father Leary as a man without integrity therefore possesses dramatic logic and weight (in addition to the structural and thematic salience created by Father Leary’s role as a precisely-opposite kind of priest to Father James).  Freddie Joyce, by contrast to Michael and Father Leary, only receives one scene, but it is one whose tonal texture is different from (and, I would suggest, superior to) the film’s predominant strategy of leavening drama with absurd or gallows humour.  Here, a different kind of modulation is provided when Freddie, rather than rejecting or accepting responsibility for his crimes, moves the conversation to another plane by imagining another version of himself, in heaven, who does not possess the destructive desires he does in this life, but will instead meet and love the people he has tortured and killed ‘with a real, true love’, and will have ‘no desire to hurt them in any way’.

The least well-realised of the film’s secondary characters are Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen) and (and this hurts the film more than any of its other shortcomings) the killer himself, Jack.  [Since I published this post, a reader has taken issue with my account of Jack’s character, and raised some good points.  See the comments below.] Frank Harte is an unbelievable and uninterestingly unpleasant doctor.  The atheistic doctor is not a very good role, Frank comments in one of his early scenes, but the film’s observation of this fact does not make it any less the case.  ‘One part humanism to nine parts gallows humour’, Frank also observes of himself, but that crucial one part to dilute and offset the other nine is nowhere in evidence.  Aiden Gillen grins and sneers with malice in every scene he appears in (and the last thing we see him do is put out his cigarette in a dish containing a human organ).  He does seem to take a particular delight in goading Father James, but his atheism goes beyond a hostility towards religion and becomes, it would seem, a contempt for any and all kinds of value.  This makes Frank a representative of, to use terms of condemnation offered by Calvary itself, cheap cynicism.  The characterisation of Jack is marred by the opposite problem – that is, not by one-note consistency, but by a confounding and frustrating inconsistency.  In the most sustained scene of interaction between Jack and Father James before the former kills the latter, Jack is the advocate of moral short cuts in the interests of an easy life.  So what if my wife is cheating on me, he tells Father James, if she is happier and I can come home from the pub at any time I like.  It is hard to square this with Jack’s unshakeable commitment to murdering Father James at the end of the film, especially as we have been given little else in between.  And if one really feels the need to include the line ‘I think she’s bipolar – or lactose intolerant, one of the two’, then it should probably be given to a character who can afford to have her or his credibility diminished and psychology simplified in the pursuit of a cheap laugh, and not to the character who kills the protagonist, and who we are asked to respond to as one whose suffering is real and demanding of recognition.

Calvary includes repeated moments of what Douglas Coupland termed ‘derision pre-emption (‘the refusal to go out on any sort of emotional limb so as to avoid mockery from peers’), moments which we might also see as ‘in-befores’ (to use the language of Web 2.0 communication).  It is as though the film wants to try to short-circuit potential accusations of obviousness or unearned emotion by itself making such observations.  We have already noted one such moment in relation to Aiden Gillen’s character.  But again: acknowledging such shortcomings does not overcome them.  The other major instance comes in a scene between Father James and his daughter (from a marriage that ended, with his wife’s death, before Father James became a priest) Fiona (Kelly Reilly).  The dialogue has already framed the father and daughter’s heartfelt exchange as a ‘third act revelation’, and at the scene’s end, Fiona observes ‘It’s corny, but I like it.’

Fiona is one of only three female characters in the film, and of those three, only one (Veronica Brennan, played by Orla O’Rourke) lives in Father James’s parish (the other, who is something of a Madonna to Veronica’s whore, is a French tourist whose faith and piety remain undented by the sudden of senseless killing of her husband in a road accident).  This is all the more remarkable for a film that gives us no fewer than ten males, besides Father James himself, living in the parish (plus Freddie Joyce and the Bishop), and it is another of the film’s features that makes it difficult to believe in the community presented, or to extrapolate the unseen from the seen.

There are many films that start out as comedies, that surround a fleshed-out protagonist who possesses emotional depth with flat caricatures, and that deliver us ultimately to a dramatic place where we care for the protagonist and feel the moral weight of her or his decision-making.  I would offer Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) as a vivid and distinguished example of such a film – and pursuing a comparison with Ghost World for a moment can offer a way of explaining the difficulties that Calvary finds itself in when it reaches its climax.  Ghost World is a coming-of-age tale in which an adolescent tries to find her place in the world and avoid the inauthenticity, compromise and sterility of the adult world she sees around her.  Her commitment is to herself and to her own authenticity, which means that the viewer’s emotional response to her and to the film’s climax does not depend centrally upon any kind of positive investment in the other characters (or most of them, at least).  Indeed, the film’s effect is supported by those characters remaining inauthentic.  Calvary shares Ghost World‘s ironic worldview, but in place of an adolescent protagonist undergoing an existential crisis, it has an adult who has committed himself to and appears to be seeking to honour a Christian worldview.  That is, the viewer’s emotional response to Father James and to the film’s climax surely does depend on Calvary‘s other characters.  In its happy guise, Christianity is about reciprocal fulfilment – about seeking one’s own fulfilment through the fulfilment of others.  In its tragic guise, it is about dying for the sins of others.  Neither of these options is tenable, is worthy of a protagonist who is worthy of our care, if that protagonist is surrounded by others whose fulfilment or suffering is prevented, by the nature of their representation, from seeming to really matter. It would not quite be fair to offer this as an overall description of Calvary, but I would suggest that it is a description that fits much of the film and many of its characters, including the moments and characters that ought to matter most.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I think that Calvary is a bad film, or a complete failure.  Its achievements (about which I probably haven’t said enough) identify it as a film that should be taken seriously.  But I think that if one does take it seriously, one cannot help but be disappointed by a thoroughgoing unevenness.  Take the film’s closing minutes.  There is elegance and thematic pointedness in the script’s raising of ‘detachment’ as a contemporary affliction from which Michael suffers profoundly, but which, as Father James is (literally) forced to admit, also formed part of his own response to learning of the Catholic Church’s shameful history of sexual abuse (this admission directly precedes Jack pulling the trigger: the dialogue furnishes a logic somewhat lacking in the characterisation).  Then comes the aestheticisation of the head shot and the blood splatter, which seemed to me yet another tonal betrayal – precisely the wrong way to handle the demise of the film’s central character.  And then the Donnie Darko/American Beauty-esque montage of what everyone else is doing, the details of which appear completely unpointed (and in at least one case – Father Leary’s reading of The God Delusion – another instance of the pursuit of the cheap laugh).  But then finally, we get the beautiful protraction and pregnant pause as Fiona visits prison to face her father’s killer, and, with a pane of glass between them, the two pick up the phones that will allow them to talk, and the film ends, leaving the viewer to wonder what forgiveness or understanding might be on offer.

Thank you to John Osborne, Jane Thomas and Louise Zborowski for our post-screening discussion, which first made me think of some of the points I have pursued above.

3 thoughts on “Taking Calvary seriously

  1. I don’t think you get Jack’s character at all.
    He was a victim of abuse himself which probably caused him not being able to have a healthy relationship (or any kind of relationship) with his wife either. The reason he tries to pretend indifference towards her cheating is to somehow hide his real feelings/humiliation and make it less embarassing in front of the townsfolk.
    There was a scene in the bar when he and Veronica sit next to each other. He looked totally uncomfortable and not relaxed at all at that point.
    Also note that at the end he admitted he had beaten her, so obviously he was not unintrested in being a cockold.
    I am not that sure about the funny lines. He seemed much more intelligent than what he showed in the first couple of scenes. But becoming the town’s clown can also be an escape/cover not having to explain his miserable life to anyone.
    It’s a good question if he meant to be sure that James knows he was the one threatening him but they couldn’t really confront more without revealing everything before the end.
    I found Jack’s character arc really interesting (but would have liked to see more of him).
    His life was such a failure (including his marriage) he felt that even sacrificing everything was better than continuing like that. He hoped for some kind of resolution by taking revenge. However seeing him in the prison showed it didn’t really solved anything…
    That’s how I saw it. Of course you don’t have to agree.
    (Sorry for my English.)

  2. Thanks very much for your response. You’re right that I should have engaged with the fact that it’s confirmed in the beach scene that Jack assaulted Veronica, which of course casts the earlier scene between him and Father James where he claims to be satisfied with the arrangement created by his wife’s adultery in a different light. And yes, I had also forgotten about that scene in the bar where Jack sits next to Veronica looking ill-at-ease while she is texting Simon. There’s also the scene, also in the bar, where Jack winds Father James up about having a crisis of faith. Your reading of Jack’s character is one that I’ll be sure to try on if I watch the film again; certainly, your comments suggest that it’s a good way of pulling some threads together. We seem to agree, though, that it would have been better if the film had given us a little more of Jack, given how much weight hangs on his character (that’s just reminded me of a really good line of his in that scene in the butcher’s, to Father James: ‘Not everyone can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders’). You’re right that it would have been tricky to incorporate a direct confrontation about the death threat, but there could still have been a few more scenes of other kinds featuring Jack. Other characters feel much more satisfactorily developed – and Chris O’Dowd, as well as being the second-billed star (after Gleeson), has certainly got the skills to deliver a solid performance. I also think, though you may disagree with me here, that the direction in the scenes that Jack does appear in could have been a little stronger, to give us a little more help in arriving at something like the interpretation of Jack’s character that you offer. As it is, we have to do a lot of extrapolating. Obviously, too much signposting would be a different kind of shortcoming, but as it stands, I think the film could be accused of vagueness.

    Thanks again for helping me think again about the film, and for suggesting ways in which the film might be better than I had thought. (Even though I take Calvary to task above, I always want to do justice to and try to see the best in the films I watch.)

  3. The truth is unfortunately I was spoiled about who the killer was before I had the chance to see the movie so probably I paid more attention to specific details. And I have no idea if I got to the same interpretation without this knowledge.
    For me the writing was more problematic (than the direction) in regards to Jack. In the meatlocker scene regardless of what he was saying, O’Dowd’s reaction to Gleeson’s first mentioning of Veronica or the Sunday mass was just perfect, as well as his forced smile when he was stating everyone’s happiness. Also the crisis of faith part was great.
    But I really don’t get why his character needed to be racist as well. Also I could live without some of the very silly lines he had.
    After reading a lot of reviews, it seems to me that quite a few people couldn’t decipher the meaning of the film or the side characters, so probably you are right about that some more clues might have helped a bit. (However still there were some which suggested the killer’s identity at least: eg. Jack’s face when the church was burning.)
    An interesting trivia: In a recent interview McDonagh was asked if there was any character he felt they needed to be present more and his answer was Jack. 🙂
    I think O’Dowd was a good choice for the role. He’s got some kind of vulnaribility to himself and
    bitterness/sadness in his eyes. I would love to see the story from Jack’s perspective as well.
    I don’t say Calvary was flawless but it held my attention from beginning to end and I don’t even remember if there was a film which stayed with me for such a long time as this one did, and it really made me think which is kind of rare for films nowdays.
    This review (what I have just found) pretty much sums up what I think: 🙂
    “Calvary” is at times a bit disjointed but it’s still a wonderful commentary on life, death and the struggle to find meaning in both.

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