(directed by John Michael McDonough)
* (out of 5)
> This Irish drama was easily one of the best films I’ve ever seen and, simultaneously, one of the biggest disappointments I have ever experienced at the movies.
. For me, this film is the anti-BOYHOOD. At the close of BOYHOOD I could not help but cry aloud (to nobody) “Perfect!” At the end of CALVARY I had a similar uncontrolled outburst- but this time the word I chose was “Shit!” The ending to CALGARY was shit. I quite enjoyed the other film by John Michael McDonough (THE GUARD), which was also set in his home country of Ireland and also starred the fantastic Brendon Gleeson. In fact, I am predisposed to enjoy Irish films because I am anything but impartial on the subject: I’ve been to Ireland 11 times. It is the home of my heart. And right up until the penultimate scene, I thought I was watching my fourth 4½ star film in a row! John (brother of Ireland’s greatest living playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonough) has crafted a perfect- and perfectly useless film.
. The set-up, established in the first few minutes of the film- before the opening credits even roll, is a potent one: Father James is a parish priest in rural Sligo. He sits in the confessional waiting to hear the next parishioner’s confession, when a man enters and informs the stunned priest that, as revenge for the childhood sexual abuse he received at the hands of bad priests, he planned to kill this good priest, to get the attention of a jaded world. This good priest is given just over one week to put his affairs in order and make his peace with God, at which point he is instructed to walk down to the beach to be assassinated. Father James is pretty sure he recognizes the voice as one of the local characters, but the sanctity of the confession hamstrings him from doing much about it. The rest of the film is a countdown to Sunday and the priest’s date with his own private Calgary. This portion of the film is as good as films get. Its unflinching depiction of modern Irish country life is almost shockingly spot-on. It is in every sense, a wise and knowing film.
. These are morally troubled times, and even though Gleeson’s priest is well liked, the Catholic church is barely able to hold on to its faithful. It seems everybody in the village is having a crisis of faith, and as the man stalking Father James is never named, we begin to imagine a number of possible suspects. All these characters are excellently played by skilled, compelling actors, from Chris O’Dowd to M. Emmet Walsh. But CALGARY is Brendon Gleeson’s movie. He’s an actor who has never given a bad performance- not one, and I have seen every feature film he ever made. Brendon Gleeson is not merely good here- he is spectacular! Every moment he is onscreen is rich and alive and cackling with electricity. It is a killer performance! Everyone is dynamite here, and most of them seem to have good reasons to hate the domineering church. So many people harbor bitter resentments to the institution that we never really know who the would-be murderer is, until that final Sunday when he comes walking up the beach to carry out his terrible plans. Yes, Father James did not inform the authorities, and no- he does not skip town as an act of simple self-preservation. This good priest is not that kind of a man. He knows his assailant is in spiritual agony, and knows it is his job to minister to such lost souls, so he walks calmly down to meet his fate.
. Throughout the film, I became convinced I was watching a Martin McDonough film, as it bore so much resemblance to IN BRUGES, SEVEN PSYCOPATHS and his Academy Award winning short SIX SHOOTER, also starring Brendon Gleeson. The two brother’s formulas are so similar as to be almost indistinguishable. And this was a major part of the problem. Martin’s stock in trade is humorous carnage. All his films involve funny, compelling, deeply flawed characters who ultimately settle their conflicts with horrific violence. Yuck! (Frankly, I often feel guilty enjoying the mayhem in Martin McDonough’s bloody, bloody films as much as I do.) And right up until the final choice, this film was the best movie either of them had ever made! I absolutely LOVED 99% of this film. The problem was: I absolutely HATED the remaining 1%. If that 1% didn’t come at the end, I would have said I was watching a near-masterpiece. Conceptually, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the existential choice made to resolve the conflict. It made perfect sense in so many ways that I cannot elucidate without revealing the outcome. But it’s not hidden- it’s right there in the title! The outcome of that confrontation on the beach is an integral part of the central metaphor, so there was no coy gameplaying here on screenwriter McDonough’s part. But the pivotal moment came down to two choices: one very powerful and satisfying, the other unimaginative, just rotely following the formula of the film- and though McDonough may have made the choice with the most integrity- it was also the worst possible choice to deliver a satisfying film.
. CALGARY is an amazing, wonderful, sparkling, resonant film- so why just ONE stinkin’ star? Simple: if someone had warned me about the ending- as I am warning you, I would not have wasted my time on what was ultimately a deeply disappointing film. Endings matter. It doesn’t matter if most of the film is spectacular if the ending leaves you angry, upset, and dissatisfied. Unfortunately, that is the bitter taste you are left with here.
> Hey John McDonough: You are an amazing artist! And oh yes: FUCK YOU dude!
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