Film Review: 'Calvary,' Directed by John Michael McDonagh (2014)

Reviewers have already begun to weigh in on "Calvary," the new John Michael McDonagh film (in U.S. theaters now).

Dark, depressing, soulless, derivative, quirky, devout, biblical, thoughtful, irreverent, smart, strange, anguished, comic, lurid, ironic and damned are only a few of the overused adjectives that have been trotted out over the past week in an effort to describe what may be one of the most significant films of the past decade. All of these labels are, in their own way, accurate. Whether they are true or not is the real question. Because, whatever else "Calvary" is, it is a movie that is essentially defined by its questions: What is the difference between truth and accuracy? Intent and deed? Shame and vice? Guilt and responsibility?

In "Calvary," at least, the difference is alluded to by silence, and the man who attempts to navigate the middle is Father James (played magnificently by Brendan Gleeson). A father as well as a Father  --James was a widower before coming to the priesthood late in life in an act his adult daughter calls his “midlife crisis”-- Gleeson’s portrayal of a rural Irish priest goes against the grain of what is expected of an Irish Catholic priest. Overtly old-fashioned --he wears an old-style cassock that gives him the look of an avenging 19th century preacher-- he nevertheless seems far more capable of dealing with the problems of a modern parish than his much younger and very “P.C.” colleague. Superficially contradictory --an ascetic who drives a battered red convertible, a devout and judgmental man who nevertheless has a seemingly endless well of compassion-- Father James is the sort of man whose very existence is like salt in the wounds of post-financial crisis, post (and current) sex-abuse-scandal Ireland.

In a world full of characters more than willing to acknowledge --if not confront-- their own vices and their own corruption and their own tortured histories --Aidan Gillen is magnificent as an agnostic drug-using doctor who takes an almost gleeful pleasure in death, Dylan Moran is even more impressive as a narcissistic businessman likely to escape prosecution for financial misdeeds only because there were too many others to prosecute first-- Father James is the innocent fated to bear the burden of guilt for the group.

But "Calvary" escapes the obvious by confronting preconceived notions head-on. On screen, Sligo is simultaneously as breathtakingly beautiful as a tourist’s postcard, and as ominous as a hangman’s gallows. (Or as ominous as the gardens of Gethsemane.) Despite the big questions, there is an intimate, self-aware and dangerous feeling to this movie. This is a story that might have been a play, or a novel, instead of a movie. This is a story that is, odd as it sounds, very much a story about stories --stories that were hidden for so long that they now fester like open sores, stories that are now told and retold so many times they no longer have the power to shock. And, in the end, that may be the greatest accomplishment of this movie, it has made a very old story shocking. Again.

Worth seeing? Definitely. Important? Yes. Family friendly? Probably not. Shocking? Like blood on snow.

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Views: 739

Tags: Film, Opinion, Reviews, Sligo

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on August 11, 2014 at 6:25am

Thanks for this excellent review, Sarah.  I'll be sure to check back in here with my thoughts on this film once we've had a chance to watch it.

Comment by kimberly on August 11, 2014 at 11:00am

Haven't heard of it but will watch if I'm able to see it..sounds interesting.

Comment by Margaret Whittock on August 11, 2014 at 2:49pm

This was the best film I've seen in a long time. Even if I did leave the cinema in tears … This film stayed with me for a long time, absolutely loved it. Thank you for the review. 

Comment by Bit Devine on August 11, 2014 at 5:43pm

We probably won't get a showing out here in Tucson... It  sounds like a movie I would love to experience.

Comment by Sarah Nagle on August 12, 2014 at 7:54pm

Bit, Kimberly, Ryan: This is well worth watching --it deals with current events but doesn't pretend to be a documentary-- and if you have a chance it is well worth watching on the big screen. Probably someone is going to try & compare this with Doubt --the 1960s Bronx Irish Catholic period-piece movie that came out a few years ago based on the Pulitzer prize winning play-- but oddly enough this managed to be much more compelling and much more black & white. (Even though Sligo is anything but black & white.)

Comment by Fran Pultro on August 13, 2014 at 2:58pm

Does anyone know when Calvary will open in US theaters?

Comment by Sarah Nagle on August 13, 2014 at 3:10pm


Calvary opened (erratically) in U.S. theaters the first week of August. Some of the indy art houses are showing it (I'm not sure what the rating for this film is but, like a lot of Irish films, there is language that automatically loses you points in a U.S. rating system). Some of the Cinemark owned multiplexes are also showing this film. (You may want to check out your local Century, Tinseltown, CineArts or Rave multiplex to see if you have a local showtime.)

Comment by Fran Pultro on August 13, 2014 at 3:51pm


Thanks. I've been waiting to see it. 


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