Thursday, August 28, 2014

Calvary review

There's a scene in Calvary where Brendan Gleeson's character, Father James Lavelle, stands on a high rock outcrop overlooking an ocean off the coast of Ireland. He watches as the brilliant blue waves crash into the jagged rocks. It's one of the most beautiful and powerful scenes in a movie filled with beautiful and powerful scenes. It really put me into the mind of the film's protagonist. Throughout its 100 minute running time, John Michael McDonagh's film stumbles quite a bit: It's much too heavy handed with its symbolism and themes, there are a few scenes that feel awfully forced, and once in a while it dips into cliche territory. But when the film works, like in the wonderful scene I mentioned above, it really works. Really well. Calvary is about a good priest. He is giving confession one Sunday when a man tells him that he was brutally molested as a young boy. The mystery man goes on to explain how the pedophile priest has long been dead, and even if he were alive killing him would do no good. For killing a bad priest is almost expected and certainly won't cause much of a fuss. So this man, this victim, has decided to kill a good priest. That priest is Father James Lavelle. He has one week to get his affairs in order, then he is to meet the man on a particular beach the following Sunday to be killed. Lavelle does not go to the authorities, he does not try and have a violent final standoff with the man, he doesn't even really try and stop this inevitable fate from happening. The entire movie is him contemplating his faith and dealing with the various troublesome (but often good meaning people around him). I've seen the existentialist hitman before in cinema, but the existentialist priest is a new one. And damn, it's a good one. John Michael McDonagh is the brother of the uber talented Martin McDonagh of Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges fame. Martin McDonagh is one of my favorite directors and I think he's a genius. John Michael McDonagh is nowhere close to as talented as his brother in terms of writing. He doesn't even come close. Despite all that, John Michael McDonagh is still an excellent writer. His struggles are more evident in the film than they should be, but he prevails enough in the end that one can forget the menial issues in the beginning. And where he lacks as a writer, he makes up tenfold as a director. The way he films the beautiful Irish landscape rivals the cinematic skill of Stanley Kubrick and John Ford. Certain shots (like the one I mentioned in the beginning) remind me of Paul Thomas Anderson's direction in The Master. I mean that only as a compliment. McDonagh shares with his brother the skill of directing actors very well. Here, he's managed to bring the best out of the always terrific Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson never disappoints, but this may be his greatest performance to date. I swear if he doesn't get an Oscar nomination, I will riot in the streets. The rest of the cast is solid as well. Kelly Reilly is excellent as Gleeson's troubled daughter and Chris O'Dowd plays a silly character who appears to be nothing but comic relief (but proves to be more than that). Calvary does get a tad preachy at times, but never to the extent it could have. It's preachiness is slight and comes from a good place, but under the wrong hands this film could've turned into a two hour sermon talking about the evils of sin and the wonder of Catholicism. Calvary is a religious film, but it's not trying to recruit you. It simply wants to make a human statement that we can all connect with. And for all its shortcomings, it succeeds. Calvary is part black comedy, part morality play, and part mystery. It's wholly wonderful.   

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