By Emily Cracknell

Mailed on May 07, 2014

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Dear John Michael McDonagh
Screenwriter and Director

Dear John,

Unfortunately, this is both literally and figuratively a ‘Dear John’ letter.

I fell just as much in love with your wit in The Guard as I did with Brendan Gleeson’s gleefully grizzled title character. But then you swung this cat out: a bleak black comedy that wades onto the screen like Virgina Woolf with pebbles in her pockets. This film is so dry it crackles, so steeped in passive aggression that I wanted to applaud whenever someone was openly violent (and inwardly I did).

In Calvary, Gleeson’s character, Father James, is unwittingly blamed for all the wrongs of the Catholic church. In the opening scene, he sits in a confessional listening to one of his flock. The confessor has decided to kill James. He admits that James is a good man and a good priest and doesn’t deserve this punishment, but he feels the world will only pay attention if a good man dies, not a bad one. He gives Father James until the end of the week to put his house in order. This deadline, this ticking clock, should add urgency to the narrative, but panic comes all too late. The film undercuts this tension about fifteen minutes in when we learn the Father knows his assailant and won’t report him to the authorities. All suspense disintegrates. The clock is still ticking, but to no end.

Unlike The Guard, in which Gleeson’s character had a personality, Father James lacks any sort of distinctive nature. Towards the end of the film he accuses his attacker of having ‘cheap cynicism.’ The man spits back that his cynicism is, in fact, ‘hard won.’ The film appears to be a continuous battle between these two perspectives; no matter the characters or the circumstance. Calvary is full of caustic exchanges and biting dialogue which transpires to little action.

Father James considers his priesthood a calling, but everyone within his parish appear to have abandoned him. They’re all doubters, sinners or atheists with a venomous opinion of the Catholic church. The film is an episodic swamp of passive aggression. As the Father tends his disillusioned flock, we drift from one character to another. We learn little about them save their angry and empty philosophies on the evils of the church.

The few instances where the film rises above these caustic conversations are in the sudden bursts of violence. The openly brutal moments in the film are where it strikes brilliance. When Calvary draws to a close and the Father meets his opponent, the reveal is all the more powerful because we’re finally past the flippant remarks and into the realm of true emotion. Yet we already knew of the crime, of the setting—nothing is revealed, nothing is solved. Late in the game Father James praises forgiveness as the highest virtue, while all around  him people are discussing sin. This is perhaps the core idea of the film: that nothing can be solved by perpetual and unresolved blame; that forgiveness is the solution. 

If that indeed was your message, John, it came a little too late. The rest of the film is a creaky, preachy, self-aware mess. It’s full of monologues that might make an actor gleeful, but nothing much of substance for the audience. The characters know they’re playing characters and all conflict between them seems to be artificially imposed.

It all rings a bit false. 

John if you hacked out some of the dialogue and stuck to the key three acts of violence in the film you might have had something here; something startling.

Emily Cracknell

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