|Courtesy of Reprisal Films|
Less a comedy then his previous film, during which Calvary was conceived as something of a corollary, John Michael McDonagh has accomplished the rare feat of approaching a serious and socially relevant topic in a serious and socially relevant way. But, he manages to avoid the trap other film makers fall into, which is to take their serious and socially relevant topic too seriously. Perhaps its because those other film makers focus too much on the topic. The issue becomes the focus of the piece. McDonagh solves that by making his film entirely about his characters. By folding the issues into the community he has populated his film with, and allowed every facet of the conversation it's own voice, and it's own moment at the podium. In doing so, he has created a high water mark in terms of cinematic discussion.
Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that aren't less unfair.
"I can't stop you," says Father James, played to perfection by Brendan Gleeson. It's not his place to act on behalf of another. As a priest, his role is merely to spread the word, and in spreading, allow the word to convince others to act on their own. That is the crux of the film: man acts on it's own, for better or worse. "There is too much talk of sins," Father James says later, "and not enough on virtue." That is the thesis of the film: that there is likely a balance in the world of the good and the bad, but the good is rarely pointed out and the bad is obsessed over. That obsession can drive you mad. Mad with hate, made with rage, mad with guilt and loss, or just so mad that you stop feeling anything at all. That the inability to recognize the good leaves people with the notion that there is no other option.
Father James' role is to make you see otherwise.
McDonagh has disguised several things in, what at it's most basic level, is a mystery without the mystery. The film opens with an unseen confessor vowing to kill Father James in a week. The audience is left in the dark about the would-be killer's identity, but James knows all along. He avoids taking any action that might prevent the threat from coming to pass, despite having several methods at his disposal. His inability to protect himself isn't a flaw or weakness, it's his job. Direct action goes against his mission in the church: to let others see the error of their ways for themselves. So, rather than go to the police, or confront the man outright, he goes about his duties, allowing his presence and his council to better those in his parish, in hopes that the killer will change his mind organically. The mystery is left to the audience, to try to figure out which of the damaged, but not damned, souls that the Father encounters along the way might have it in them to kill a "good priest."
But McDonagh isn't interested so much in the mystery. A less patient or less subtle hand behind the camera would have made it a caper. McDonagh makes it a sounding board. A painful, difficult and completely necessary pause in the midst of frivolity to stand up and say something of meaning. Priests in the Catholic church are guilty of heinous crimes against children, and justice has been slot to react. The once unbreachable veneer of the church has been stripped away, leaving only a haze of suspicion. Where as once, a priest might have been the only unimpeachable and trustworthy person in a village, now they are a pariah by association. This is not a topic that McDonagh shies away from, likely because it is a topic that hasn't been rationally and intelligently discussed yet. It's too emotional a subject. There is no pause allowed; the act is evil.
Except McDonagh found a way to have that rational discussion, without becoming an apologist or a fanatic. He simply approaches it, not as a war crime, but as a sin. An unforgivable one, but sins are manageable, at least form the church's perspective. Sins are things that an be confessed to, that can be discussed in solitary, and can be come to terms with. So, there are characters in the film that react extremely. There are those who panic out of fear. Those that lash out, out of hate. That mock in atheistic glee. And those, like Father James, who struggle to reconcile what they know and what they believe.
Sin is a primary force throughout the coarse of the film, and the Big Seven all get their turn. There are more than even recurring characters in Father James' life, but most conform to at least one of the Seven Deadlies. There is the adulterous wife, the greedy banker, the wrathful wronged, the envy-wrought loner weirdo, the gluttonous serial killer, and the slothful American. And there is Father James, heralded as the "good priest," who over the coarse of the film shows the audience that good and bad can occasionally be only skin deep. That more often than not, we project our assumptions onto others, and consider it their fault when they fail to live up to our expectations. Father James is undergoing a test of faith, another recurring theme of the film. If faith is something that can be lost, how strong was it to begin with? What is the breaking point of faith? How much must one man, one village, one country, or one church endure before it cracks? Father James recieves his warning, and spends the rest of the film wandering through a menagerie of sin, looking upon them and asking himself if they are worth saving.
The characters are largely one dimensional, but they aren't designed to be anything but. The arrogant, atheist doctor is only those things because those are what he needs to be in juxtaposition to Father James. So it is with all the supporting characters, even the dog. They are there as auxiliary notions to the central debate of Father James' contemplation. Only James is fully realized. Only James exhibits facets and depths and internal contradictions, because in this story, he's all the humanity that everyone else isn't. That they can't or refuse to be. And Brendan Gleeson delivers a performance that will top his career. It's not an unfamiliar kind of role that Gleeson has been expected of from the McDonagh brothers, but he goes beyond himself at times. He literally carries the film, appearing in nearly every minute of it, and he does so with subtly and contemplation and honest emotionality. He's kind and he's wise and he's foolish and he's funny, and he's all of those things when he needs to be and when he wants to be. While everyone around him is just what they seem all of the time, Gleeson is called upon to appear normal. And it's staggering how alien that normalcy is, and frightening how much more comfortable the extremes are. McDonagh does us a good turn reminding us that real people can be more than two things at once.
There is rarely a moment of the film that isn't beautiful. Either its the scenery (Benbulbin features prominently) grounding us to the land, and reminding us that among the spiritual discussions, this is an earth bound story. Or it's the actors, who equip themselves wonderfully in their various walking deformities (I'd give special mention to Dylan Moran for playing hard against type, and Owen Sharpe as probably the most tragic character of the piece). The music, the cinematography, the direction, the writing all comes together to create something powerful and moving, without ever being grotesque or insulting. It isn't the judgement that most would want, it's a discussion that most don't want to have. And ultimately, it's a message many will find hard to accept.