Is there an actor better than Brendan Gleeson when it comes to evoking the strange, rare combination of exasperation and sadness? Look at his filmography and you’ll find funny, poignant performances throughout, from The General and The Tailor of Panama via 28 Days Later (he makes it out of the film before the shaky ending, though not before breaking our hearts) to Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, where he’s the perfect complement to Colin Farrell’s thick, tragicomic protagonist.
I wasn’t too taken by The Guard, written and directed by McDonagh’s older brother John Michael; although Gleeson made the most of the material, the film wasted co-star Don Cheadle and didn’t have enough good material to last its duration. McDonagh’s 2014 film Calvary is more accomplished and cohesive, and not miles removed from the tragicomedy of his brother’s In Bruges. The film’s protagonist, Father James Lavelle, is told in confession by one of his parishioners that he will be dead in a week: the man tells him of his own sexual abuse as a child by a Catholic priest and says that in return he will kill Father James. However, he assures him, he won’t kill him because the priest is one of the rotten apples himself, but rather because he is the opposite – killing a bad priest wouldn’t be nearly as much of a statement as killing a good priest, the man’s tortured logic runs. Father James knows his would-be killer, but he does not report him to the police. Does he think the man isn’t serious about his threat of the priest’s life? Does he hope that his own actions could convince the man that there is good to be found in God and in faith? Or is this more about the priest’s own faith, which the longer the more seems to run towards the fatalistic? (Warning: the following contains spoilers for Calvary.)
Calvary depicts Father James’ week leading up to the foretold murder; we watch as he tries to do his pastoral duty in a place that humours him at best, and more often ridicules and downright resents his faith and what he represents. Gleeson’s priest may be a good man, but is not a cloying, saintly figure; he is judgmental, prone to anger, and not a little sarcastic towards his flock and colleagues. He is also something of an absentee father, having abandoned his daughter for the priesthood after his wife died. At the same time, he does appear to have a genuine interest in the spiritual wellbeing of the people he engages with, though not in an abstract, theological sense: Father James is pretty much the pastoral equivalent of movie psychologists along the lines of Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People, a gruff, sardonic but caring shepherd who won’t take shit (or, indeed, shite, seeing how Calvary relishes its Irish inflections) from anyone but who still strives for redemption in all.
Unfortunately most of the inhabitants of the little coastal village in County Sligo where the film takes place throw this redemption right back in the priest’s face. I’ve seen few films that depict a more cynical, disaffected, resentful community than Calvary: even before the fateful final day, Father James is ridiculed, abused, even beaten; his church is burnt down and his dog is killed. It is as if his attempts to do good by his parish, in ways that are far from sanctimonious or preachy, rile those around him. They seem to have become so comfortable in their jadedness that the priest’s actions affront them. There’s more than a touch of High Noon as Father James comes face to face with the indifference and disdain of his parishioners, not so much to ask for help but to assert who he wants to be: a good man and a good priest. He briefly considers but ultimately rejects both leaving before the week is over and arming himself in self-defense, facing his probable death with grim defiance.
Writing and rereading all of this, I find myself puzzled: in the abstract, it’s impossible not to find Father James’ decisions less defiant than stubborn to the point of pride and stupidity. At one point he talks to his daughter about what he calls the hackneyed Christian proverbs: “Turn the other cheek”, “Judge not, let ye be judged”, yet what he does isn’t just turning the other cheek but walking into the path of a clenched fist. Does he want to die? Does he believe his death would be a statement of his faith, as much as his would-be killer thinks it will be a statement on the corruption of the Church or God’s inherent unfairness? Yet, while watching the film I didn’t think any of these thoughts: Gleeson’s performance provides a coherence, an intellectual and moral integrity that I’m not sure the script quite musters. He turns the story from high concept to something more tangible and affecting, making Father James’ fate the tragedy of a good man rather than that of a stubborn idiot. Gleeson is Calvary‘s not-so-secret weapon, but it is one that finally works against the film in unintended ways, highlighting its shortcomings: his performance is so moving and compelling that it distracts us from the fact that his actions are barely examined. Thinking about the film after the fact, there’s a fascinating story here of a faith pursued to self-annihilation, a faith that fails to help others, but Gleeson’s performance throughout convinces us that Father James is a good man doing the right thing. Except when the inevitable occurs, the feeling we’re struck with is that of senselessness. If the priest did the right thing, why does the ending feel so sadistic and pointless? If Calvary is tragedy, it finally is so in the Lars “Breaking the Waves” von Trier sense, where suffering seems to be its own redemption, and that’s not a tale I much care for. The film offers a brief epilogue that ties back to Father James’ words to his daughter about forgiveness being a “highly underrated” virtue. This is the only visible legacy left behind by Father James – yet what good is forgiveness if it came at the price of a preventable murder, an unnecessary death? Think about it: he could have prevented not only his own death but his killer becoming a murderer.
All of these questions I’m left with: they can be interesting, morally and spiritually, yet in the end Calvary doesn’t seem all that interested in examining them. It has a fantastic, poignant, deeply human performance at its centre, but it’s a performance that ends up eclipsing the story the film is actually telling, and the two are at odds: the character Gleeson is performing, with great conviction and to great effect, clashes with the implications of the story he’s in. While watching Calvary I felt for Father James throughout – but looking back at the film, I must admit I share some of the resentment his parishioners feel towards the priest and at the film for its manipulations. The priest accepts the twisted logic of his murderer-to-be for no reason other than that there wouldn’t be a film otherwise, and that’s not quite good enough. In the end it comes down to this: if you must martyr yourself to your faith, couldn’t you have chosen a death that isn’t as pointless?