That line, delivered by an anonymous and unseen penitent in the opening scene of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, dominates all that follows. And yet, the actual plot of McDonagh’s second feature pays little mind to the threat and all it entails. And because of that, McDonagh has crafted a minor gem, one very much out of step with modern Western film, and one which will resonate far longer.
Of course, to call the anonymous man on the other side of the confession box a “penitent” is inaccurate. His goal is vengeance, not absolution. That point is made very clear a few scenes later when Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) discusses the issue with his bishop (David McSavage). The bishop seems to correctly point out that the details of this “confession” do not require confidentiality and that Father James may go to the police if he wishes.
At this early point in the movie, McDonagh is constructing what look like a good mystery/thriller. The would-be murderer gives the priest a deadline. He will do the deed in one week, thereby allowing Father James to put his affairs in order. So, in typical mystery fashion, we can wonder about the identity of the killer. We can look for clues in Father James’ interactions during the week. If and when we narrow in on a suspect, we can then speculate about how Father James will deal with the threat. Will he be proactive? Will he live or die?
The remarkable thing about Calvary is that virtually none of those questions play a very big role in the ensuing ninety minutes. They don’t vanish completely, and as I said, we never forget the overlying threat. But the scenes that play out, which all include Father James, do not focus on his impending doom, at least not in the way we might expect from an American movie.
In this regard, McDonagh is building on a rich cinematic tradition. One of the many remarkable things about Citizen Kane (1941) is the way that Welles and Mankiewicz use the early “News on the March” newsreel to summarise Kane’s life. By essentially telling us the lead character’s entire life story in a condensed form right up front, the filmmakers allow the remainder of the movie to focus on questions beyond the simple ”what happens next?” We can ask the “why” question. Why did Kane behave in a certain way?
Some years later, in the 1970s, television producers William Link and Richard Levinson had grown tired of the standard TV detective mystery. They were reacting against the classic Perry Mason episode, which would propose a whodunit. Defence attorney Perry would save his seemingly guilty client by pulling out some mysterious piece of evidence heretofore unknown to the audience. Link and Levinson, along with their star, Peter Falk, created Columbo, a detective story in which the identity of the murderer was made clear in the opening sequence. Freed from the mystery over who done it, the audience could then focus attention on how the crime was going to be solved.
McDonagh doesn’t do exactly that. He does allow the mystery to hover, though it’s not a complex, indecipherable one. You can probably make a good guess from somewhere in the middle. But after that exchange with the bishop, McDonagh has Father James go about his weekly routine. He deals with the various problems faced by his parishioners. He deals with personal problems and tragedy. The threat is obviously weighing on him, but he takes almost no steps to address it. He spends the week doing exactly what the mystery man suggested. He puts his affairs in order.
In McDonagh’s Calvary, there is more than enough drama in the life of an Irish country priest to sustain a movie, regardless of whether his life has been threatened. There are cheating and abusive spouses, old men nearing death, and young men tired of life. There is homosexuality and suicide. There’s an inadequate colleague and a sick dog. Father James attempts to bring peace and perspective to his charges and does so with mixed results. Many appear to like him personally but have little interest in what he is selling. Indeed, perhaps the most telling thing about Calvary is not the murder threat, but the sharply drawn portrait of an Irish population engaged in an extreme love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church. Many of Father James’ parishioners, even the ones who respect him, take great pleasure in treating him with contempt.
Ultimately, this is not a movie about mystery and murder. It is not even a movie specifically about faith. It is a movie about dichotomy. In addition to love/hate for the church, Calvary presents another Irish specialty: gallows humour. Tragedy and comedy coexist in Calvary from the opening exchange. Father James spends a good part of the week with his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), recent survivor of a suicide attempt. When he first sees the bandages on her wrist, Father James makes a joke about it – a joke that is later repeated by another member of the town. Making jokes at Father James’ expense is a fairly typical pastime. Terrible things happen in Calvary, but we are never far removed from humour.
The ultimate dichotomy gets at the central thematic concern of the film. It concerns the issue of revenge and forgiveness. It is a thorny issue on many levels and one that saturates virtually every part of the world today. I will not reveal the end of the story, but I will offer that Calvary resolves this issue in a more profound manner than The Railway Man (2013) recently attempted. In that movie, the mystery remained front and centre, and turned out to be somewhat of a jumbled mess. Calvary does not offer an easy solution, but I believe it places the question in proper perspective.
This holds true right up until the final scene, which echoes the opening. Two characters are seated, this time looking directly at each other, in a ritualised setting. We have a pretty good indication of what is going to be said between them. But still, McDonagh manages a surprise which some may find maddening, but I found pitch perfect.
Indeed, I suspect an audience raised on modern Hollywood fare may find a lot of Calvary maddening. It does not focus on plot. It does not focus on mystery and suspense. It focuses on character and moral issues, the way we live our lives and the way we deal with our death. There is one potent moment (one of the two scenes in the film during which there were audible gasps from the audience) which is never adequately explained.
As I write that, I realise that I may have misstated my case. I have said that Calvary does not concern itself with mystery. I should clarify. Calvary does not concern itself with the “small m” mystery of who has threatened Father James and whether he will fulfil that threat. But it does care deeply about mystery – the “large M” kind – the questions of faith and forgiveness.
Truth be told, there are false notes in McDonagh’s movie. In a generally well-acted film (Gleeson is award-worthy), Owen Sharp’s performance as a gay hustler is so over-the-top that it feels like it is coming from a different enterprise. Aidan Gillen’s atheist doctor also feels a little overdrawn. But if we take just one thing away from Calvary it is to be forgiving of the flaws we encounter. And maybe not to focus so much on the final mystery. After all, we all know how our own stories will end. Deciding how we live our lives, or our final week, provides mystery enough.