John Michael McDonagh is a skilled writer director whose career has somewhat been overshadowed by his brother Martin. While Martin’s canon features belters like In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, John Michael’s debut with The Guard seemed like a pale imitation; his latest film, Calvary features the same star as The Guard in Brendan Gleeson, and attempts the same mix of blackly comic patter, violent incident and philosophical ruminations that has been the hallmark of the brothers’ work.
In Calvary, Gleeson plays Father James, an easy-going, likable priest who is given a death sentence in the confessional by an unseen voice in his confessional. James has a week to get himself together, with a rendezvous with his assassin planned for a lonely beach on the following Sunday. James is split between preparing for a struggle (buying a gun and bullets) and making his peace with the world, notably reconciliation with his daughter (Kelly Reilly). But there’s also the tricky business of working out who his potential assassin might be; the voice claimed to belong to a man abused by priests, and James sets out to interview a number of potential candidates, including Dylan Moran, Chris O’Dowd and Aiden Gillen, all of whom have potential motives…
McDonagh deserves some credit for tackling issues to do with hidden abuse by the church head on; a telling scene sees Father James chatting to a little girl, only for her suspicious father to pull up in a car and whisk her away. The role of the church in a small community is under examination, and McDonagh pits Father James’s likability and affable nature against local distrust of the church. As with the guard, Gleeson is a great center for a film like this, and his performance holds Calvary together.
Unfortunately, McDonagh does not have his brother’s gift of the gab when it comes to dialogue. Knowing dialogue (That’s a great opening line,’ “what a third act revelation’) suggests that Father James has been swallowing screenwriting manuals, or that McDonagh can’t resist showing off. The scenes with James’s daughter are heavy-handed when they need to be caustic, and there’s too much knockabout whimsy, albeit peppered with swearing. A bleak ending sits uneasily with the whimsy; whereas Martin is deft in his gear-changes, John Michael’s control of the dialogue is clumsy and childish in comparison. Calvary is a thematically interesting and modern film, but it fails to hit the targets it aims for.