[Screen It]

"CALVARY"
(2014) (Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Black Comedy: A priest deals with the wide assortment of personalities in his small Irish town, all while contending with a threat of being killed in one week by one of them as an atonement for past Church misdeeds.
PLOT:
In a small Irish town, Father James Lavelle (BRENDAN GLEESON), takes confession from a man who claims he was sexually abused by another priest as a child. Since that man is now dead, the confessor states he's going to kill James, but is giving him seven days to get his affairs in order. That includes dealing with his adult, suicidal daughter, Fiona (KELLY REILY), who's arrived in town for a visit. At the same time, fellow priest Father Leary (DAVID WILMOT) is concerned that local butcher Jack Brennan (CHRIS O'DOWD) might be beating his wife, Veronica (ORLA O'ROURKE), especially since that man seems to know she's having an affair with Simon (ISAACH DE BANKOLE), the local mechanic. Then there's uber wealthy Michael Fitzgerald (DYLAN MORAN) who has anything and everything money can buy except for happiness, and he's wanting to make a sizeable donation to the church to absolve himself of his sins.

Then there's Dr. Franke Harte (AIDAN GILLEN) who doesn't believe in any of that religious stuff, including the beliefs of a woman, Teresa (MARIE-JOSEE CROZE), who's just lost her husband in a car accident. Meanwhile, an older author known as The Writer (M. EMMET WALSH) asks James to get him a gun so that he can off himself should his health or mental state deteriorate to the point of making life not worth living.

James ends up going to see the local cop, Inspector Stanton (GARY LYDON) -- who's having a visit from local gigolo Leo (OWEN SHARPE) -- about getting such a weapon, wondering if it might come in handy considering the ultimatum he's received. As the days count down, James ponders what he should do and whether the confessor will go through with his threat.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
When I saw a new existential black comedy a few weeks back and was impressed enough to recommend it to others at a family wedding, I either mispronounced the title or they misheard it through the reception room clamor. Either way, they were curious about this new movie regarding highly mobile soldiers on horseback and wondered if it might deal with the version that's so prominently fixed in the minds of most Americans, that being those associated with Custer's Last Stand, a.k.a. the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

While that might have brought up thoughts of a reboot of "F Troop," I was actually saying "Calvary" and not "Cavalry," although the way things play out in writer/director John Michael McDonagh's latest work, his protagonist might have appreciated being rescued by such horsemen from the locals that surround him in his small Irish town.

The terrific Brendan Gleeson plays one of the priests there, a man who's put some of his troubles behind him, while others lurk just below the surface, ready to erupt if given the opportunity. That would appear to arrive in the opening scene where an unseen man confesses to Father James (in rather graphic terms) that he was abused by a priest as a boy and since that man is now dead, he's going to kill James -- in seven days -- to make things right.

One would correctly think that it would be difficult and certainly risky to try to build a comedy (albeit a decidedly black one) out of a sequence where the victim says he first tasted semen at the age of seven, but the filmmaker manages to pull it off, all while thankfully and definitely not making light of such real-life abuse. Instead, he focuses on the various sordid townsfolk who could definitely use some religious guidance or at least moral guidelines in their lives.

There's the local butcher (Chris O'Dowd) who doesn't seem to mind that his wife (Orla O'Rourke) is having her latest affair with the local mechanic (Isaach de Bankole) who may or may not be beating her. A successful and egotistical businessman (Dylan Moran) flaunts his wealth and makes a weak gesture of wanting to absolve himself of his sins, while an older writer (M. Emmet Walsh) is desirous of getting his hands on James Bond's favorite weapon in case he needs to deal with a deteriorating body or mind.

An atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) has no problem saying he'd like to hit on a just widowed woman (Marie-Josée Croze), while the local cop (Gary Lydon) apparently has a thing for a flamboyant, gay gigolo (Owen Sharpe) who playfully taunts the priest whose counterpart (David Wilmot) is an apparent xenophobe. Meanwhile, his own daughter (Kelly Reilly) has arrived in town after an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

James goes about interacting with all of them without informing them of the upcoming hit targeting him, albeit with a heavy dose of melancholy on his part. While it's suggested he knows the killer's identity from the get-go, perhaps he's sounding them out for more possible info. Then again, he could simply be going through his weekly motions and interacting with the locals as he's always done.

There's also the notion that the film's title presumably comes from that being the location where Jesus was crucified, and the metaphor here is that our protagonist may or may not die for the collective sins of these sordid souls that surround him (or perhaps even the Catholic church for its past sins against some of its followers). And he's going out and rounding up all of those sins before his time and sacrifice for them arrives.

That might sound heavy and depressing, and it sometimes is, but McDonagh injects enough humor and quirkiness into the proceedings -- via a razor sharp and quite smart script -- to make it all go down quite easily, and sometimes with a smile on the viewer's face or a nod of the head acknowledging it touching on some universal truth. Buoyed by all of that, Gleeson once again delivers a terrific performance where just as much is said through his face and actions as what comes out of his mouth. Although the sheer number of other characters prevents any from getting a significant amount of screen time, the performances of them range from solid to memorable.

Quite likely not everyone's cup of tea, but an engaging, often entertaining and certainly thought-provoking picture, "Calvary" never features the cavalry riding in to rescue our troubled and possibly doomed protagonist, but that's quite likely just one of the points the filmmaker is after. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed June 27, 2014 / Posted August 8, 2014


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