Thursday, August 14, 2014

Movie Review: Gleeson shines in difficult but rewarding 'Calvary'

calvary

'Calvary' starts on a jarring note. An off-screen parishioner in confession tells Father James (Brendan Gleeson) that he suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest when he was a child, and that he intends to kill Father James a week from Sunday in some sort of redirected vengeance against the church.

It's hard to tell exactly how fazed Father James is by the threat, due to the incredible way that Gleeson registers and downplays emotion in the role. He tells his presumed attacker that he'll think of something better to say by next Sunday, and then goes about visiting the various lost souls of his flock with a business-as-usual diligence.

Calvary is presented almost as a series of vignettes as James makes his rounds. Some are quite dramatic, like the couple injured in a car accident who require last rites, the prison visit to a convicted killer (About Time's Domhnall Gleeson) and the longing conversations with Fiona (Kelly Reilly), James' daughter from a pre-priesthood marriage. But others are filled with dark comedy: the complacent cuckold (Bridesmaid's Chris O'Dowd) or Dylan Moran as a man so disillusioned by his wealth that he quite literally urinates on it.

These visits — some bizarre, some pleasant, some combative — are underscored by the weight that Father James is a man fighting, however nonchalantly it may appear, against a ticking clock. He knows the identity of his would-be killer but keeps this information from the audience, preserving an it-could-be-anyone tension as we're introduced to more of the idiosyncratic characters that populate this small town in Ireland.

The setting is one of Calvary's strengths, existing in a world apart from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life but steeped in and struggling to deal with a history of sexual crimes against children. It's made clear that Father James is innocent of the horrors perpetuated by his peers, but he is still burdened by the communal weight of his institution.

These are people largely detached from the crimes of the Catholic Church, and while Calvary does not address those crimes directly, it presents us with the aftermath of a world where institutional trust is shattered.

The film has a lot to say, and achieves it best by having its protagonist leave much unsaid. But there's also a sense that the filmmakers are reaching to string together themes that don't quite coalesce.

The large cast also presents an inconsistent caliber of performances (the scenes with Reilly never quite hit the emotional punch they're intended to) but everyone involved is lifted by the commanding presence of Gleeson as Father James.

When next Sunday arrives and our antagonist is revealed, their malice and anger is not easily reconciled with the interactions they've had earlier in the film. But the film's final scenes, while likely to be divisive, are beautifully shot and written with the appropriate weight of questions that do not provide easy answers.

Viewers will likely come away with different reactions, but speaking broadly Calvary is a film that leaves an impression, not of any particular moment or line of dialogue, but a quiet and introspective mood that haunts you after you leave the theater.

Grade: B+

*Calvary opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 15.

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