The 400-Word-Review: Cavalry
By Sean Collier
August 27, 2014
There are as many approaches to evaluating a film as there are people in the audience. For many, a movie’s ability to serve as entertainment is paramount; one can quibble over the cinema’s exact location on the spectrum that stands between entertainment and art, but it is no bold assertion to say that most pictures aim to give the audience an enjoyable experience.
Calvary has no such concerns. It is brutal, unrelenting and starkly depressing. It is also thematically and textually rich, beautifully shot and movingly performed. Your ability to recognize any of that, however, depends on how well you can withstand Calvary’s onslaught.
Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a dutiful priest in small-town Ireland, is confronted by an unnamed man, under the cover of the confessional screen. The voice explains that he will return to kill James in a week, as dramatic repayment for abuse he suffered at the hands of a clergyman; the murder of an innocent priest, the would-be killer reasons, will create more impact than the execution of a bad one. Unsure if the threat is serious, James goes through a week of paranoia and tumult, sometimes trying to settle his affairs and sometimes ignoring the threat — even as the attack commences.
Directed and written by John Michael McDonagh, Calvary is determined to be a black comedy, a neatly structured mystery and a sweeping nihilistic manifesto simultaneously. Deliberately, these elements do not gel; they complement and contrast one another in turns, but represent different missions. Perhaps unfortunately, the darkness rises overwhelmingly above the others; laughs and intrigue are available to the audience in the early part of Father James’ week, but are firmly off the table as the deadline approaches.
It is only Gleeson, one of the few performers who is immensely talented and immensely likable at all times, who exerts enough calm to convince the audience to endure the ride. He is helped by a game supporting cast featuring Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran and others, but the film is his.
To be clear, the punishing quality of Calvary is not a failing, as I’m sure it was McDonagh’s aim. It does create, however, a film that must be praised but cannot be broadly recommended. Those who dare to wrestle with it should enter bearing a healthy amount of world-weary stoicism; those who go in unaware will leave with a kind of bewildered depression.
My Rating: 8/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark