We’re in the home stretch folks, one last month of these Cinematic Century articles, and just a few more favorite films to discuss. And, I have to admit, 2014 is probably the biggest curve-ball I’ve thrown in a while. Lately it feels like I’ve been talking about some of the biggest films of any given year, perhaps the more obvious choices, but for 2014 I found myself drawn to a pretty unexpected choice for my favorite film of the year. Which isn’t to say that 2014 didn’t have plenty of other great movies that were vying for the top spot. It’s actually kind of shocking how many great movies came out in 2014. We began the wonderful John Wick franchise with the sleeper hit original, which launched a wonderful series that I hope goes on for years to come. I’m also a huge fan of Whiplash, a really interesting movie about obsession and perfect mixed with good old fashioned toxic relationships. There’s also the utterly wonderful What We Do In the Shadows, maybe Taika Waititi’s most broad film, but one that may have the best jokes, quickly becoming one of the best vampire films ever made. I’ve talked about Paul Thomas Anderson quite a bit here, and I do have a great affection for Inherent Vice, a beautifully nonsensical little film that gets unfairly dismissed. It’s a wonderfully entertaining experience, and it’s insane how well Anderson is able to adapt Pynchon’s weirdo worldbuilding. I also quite like scuzzy masterpiece Nightcrawler, a wonderful example of how best to use Jake Gyllenhal. Also, have y’all seen Edge of Tomorrow? Because it rules. Who wouldn’t like an action-movie version of Groundhog Day. And while I’ve generally not been a fan of the films of Wes Anderson, but the only one that has managed to work for me is the Grand Budapest Hotel, which I’m weirdly able to get on the same wavelength as. Oh, and I also have a deep love for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, still probably my personal favorite entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, regardless of all of that, I couldn’t help but decide my favorite film of 2014 is a twisted little film that I saw at an indie theater in Denver on a lark, and which hit me like a ton of bricks.
Frustratingly, I didn’t find a whole lot of information regarding the making of this film. It was written and directed by John McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh who we’ve talked about on the site before. While working on his previous film, the Guard, McDonagh had the idea for the film, and since Brendan Gleeson was also the lead in that film, the main role for Calvary was written specifically for him. McDonagh was worried about the tone of the film, and the dark subject matter, but decided that he would take a stab at making a film that was about the real-life horror of sexual molestation among Catholic priests, while also attempting to tell a story about a man of real faith and conviction. They sought out real locations from real small towns in Ireland, specifically the county Sligo, lending an air of authenticity to the film. The film was then brought to Sundance, where it gained distribution and then went on to not make much of a splash. Which, isn’t entirely shocking for an Irish film about molestation and murder. But, the film got quite a bit of positive reception from people, and critics. And, while it’s not exactly the most well-known of the films of 2014 that I mentioned above, it’s a movie that really hit me hard when I first saw it. And all of those feelings were brought soaring back when I revisited the film, which remains one of the more haunting and challenging films I’ve seen in the last decade.
The film starts with a bang, with Father James getting a confessional from an unseen parishioner, who informs him that when he was a child he was routinely molested by a priest. The unseen man then tells Father James that he plans on getting revenge by killing him, even though he did absolutely nothing wrong. But, he’s going to give him a week, telling Father James to meet him at the beach in seven days so that he can kill him. James does seem to know who the man on the other side of the confessional is, but he refuses to tell anyone, against the advice of his bishop. James hopes to spend the week, getting his affairs in order, and hopefully trying to convince the man not to kill him. Which is going to be difficult, because he also learns that his daughter Fiona is going to be staying with him for a while after a failed suicide attempt. So, in between reconnecting with his estranged daughter, Father James begins travelling around the town, mending fences, fixing problems, and dealing with his potential murder.
We quickly realize that this small village they all live in is quite odd, full of strange people who all seem openly hostile to Father James. He notices that a woman named Veronica in the town has a black eye, and goes to talk to her husband Jack, the local butcher, telling him to be better to his wife, even though she does openly cheat on him, and their marriage is essentially over. He also deals with an elderly American author who has been living in their town for quite a while, and who has decided that he needs a gun so that he can commit suicide rather than live out the rest of his life in agony, which Father James is pretty against. Father James also has to deal with a strange and belligerent millionaire named Michael Fitzgerald who has moved to an estate outside of town, only for his wife and children to immediately leave him, sending him down a spiral of self-destructive and cruel behavior. Father James also decides to travel to prison to talk with a former parishioner of his, Freddie Joyce, a serial killer who has asked Father James to visit him and absolve him of his sins, which just leads to an angry confrontation. Father James returns to the village, and visits the local police officer, borrowing a revolver of his for the author. However, things really take a turn that night when Father James finds that their church is being burnt to the ground, and someone has killed his dog.
This causes Father James to stroll into the local bar, confront everyone for all of their sins, and generally airing everyone’s dirty laundry. And, after getting into an altercation with a cocaine-addled doctor named Frank Harte that escalates to the point that Father James takes out the revolver and starts shooting it in the bar, earning himself a beating from the townsfolk. He wakes up the next day and takes Fiona to the airport, where he plans on just leaving town and going to Dublin with her. But, when he sees the wife of a man who died in town recently during a car accident, he realizes that he needs to stand by his faith, and returns to the town. He visits the author and tells him he’s not going to let him die, he tells Fitzgerald that he’ll come visit him soon and the two will talk about all of his problems, and he calls Fiona to tell her that he’ll always be with her. He then heads to the beach, throws his gun into the ocean, and awaits his fate. Which is when the would-be killer arrives, and it turns out to be Jack the butcher. Apparently Jack had been molested for years, and has developed this plan to kill a good, honest priest, which would send a bigger message to the church than killing one of the rotten priests. He even was the one to burn down the church, although he promises it wasn’t him who killed the dog. Father James takes all of his information, and tells him that he’s sorry for what happened to him. Jack shoots Father James though, killing the priest on the beach, and awaiting the police to arrest him, where he’s sent to the same prison as Freddie Joyce. And we’re left with the image of Fiona coming to visit Jack in prison, hoping to get some sort of answers for what happened to her father.
Calvary is not what I’d call an uplifting film. Going into it back in the day, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from it. I hadn’t seen any of John McDonagh’s films, but I had quite a bit of affection for his brother. All I knew was this it looked like a darkly funny movie about a priest, seemingly acting as some sort of accidental detective, a character archetype that I really love. So, you can imagine my surprise when I saw down and the first thing I heard was a mysterious man telling Father James that he had been repeatedly raped by a priest, and now is going to murder him. It’s certainly a rough subject matter, and one that certainly shouldn’t be handled in any sort of flippant matter, but I really do think that this film handles it all masterfully. It’s a very strange film, and a hard one to categorize, easily switching between pitch-black comedy and genuine heart and sadness. The structure of the film, leaving us guessing who the actual potential killer is the entire time works surprisingly well, since this town is stuffed to the gills with weirdos and lunatics, all of whom could easily have been revealed to be the killer. But, it’s not really a mystery. We don’t follow Father James around town as he tries to uncover the truth of a situation he was unwillingly placed in, because from the very first moment of the film he knows who he’s talking to, and what’s going on. It isn’t about the mystery, it’s about the decision to go through with life, and the attempt to save a person who literally means him harm. And it’s all handled beautifully with Brendan Gleeson’s amazing performance, somehow giving us a Catholic priest who doesn’t immediately come off as a villain, and instead a genuinely decent man in a world gone mad.
I am not a man of faith. I’ve discussed it in passing throughout the years I’ve been writing this site, but religion is never something that has interested me in the slightest, and in fact I typically find organized religion to be a great burden on society. My family is technically Catholic, but aside from some weddings and funerals I’ve never really been to any sort of service, and when all of the revelations about the rampant sexual misconduct within the church, and the church’s general disinterest in doing anything about it, all came to light, it was easy to completely relegate the entire religion to the past, a thing of indecency. And, in the modern world, I feel like you have to go the extra mile to show a character of faith, specifically a Catholic priest, as someone to root for, and not some secret harbinger of sin and evil. And, weirdly, this movie handles that all fantastically. Father James is a legitimately good person, someone who has devoted his life to helping those around him, even if they aren’t particularly interested in his particular brand of help. He knows everyone in town, he knows what they’re ashamed of and proud of, and he spends his last few days doing everything in his power to help them, to make the world a better place before he’s gone. He could have just fled, or turned Jack in to the authorities, but instead he took his time to try and win him over, to show him that there’s still good in the world, and put his own life behind those of the townsfolk, hoping to help them. Because he’s a true man of faith, and someone who actually wants to put good into the world. It’s a rare thing, and of course the world has to destroy that goodness. Father James is the exception, the truly honest and righteous man, and he has to pay for the crimes of everyone else, but does so with gladness, knowing that he did his best.
Calvary was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh and released by Momentum Pictures, 2014.
Categories: Cinematic Century