Weird Western

John Michael McDonagh puts a gun-toting priest at the heart of new film ‘Calvary’, says Alan O’Riordan

RELAXING with a drink in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, film director John Micheal McDonagh says “the film is almost a western, in a way. The Guard was, too. Maybe that’s all I make — these weird westerns.”

McDonagh is speaking about his latest film, Calvary, a companion piece to his under-the-radar hit, The Guard.

Both have Brendan Gleeson in the lead role, and in both the director tries to kill him.
Calvary brings McDonagh back to Easkey, Co Sligo, where he and his brother, the playwright Martin, spent their summers — two south London boys running wild in their mother’s home-place.

The town is now a top surfing destination — the boards and wave-riders garnish the film’s aerial shots of waves breaking on remote rocky shores.

“I always wanted to make an Irish film that had scope,” says McDonagh. “A film that you wanted to watch on widescreen. And with the waves and surfers, this was it. So, I decided to put the priest in that town.”

If Calvary is a western, then Gleeson’s Father James is a preacher man straight out of Sergio Leone: standing erect against the windswept Atlantic coast, clad in a soutane, his hair and beard biblically straggly. His iconic look is a reminder not to take the film too literally. Calvary is not a mood piece. Mind you, it reads like one: a priest struggles to maintain his status among the irreverent parishioners of a west-of-Ireland town, while also dealing with the fallout of his daughter’s suicide attempt. (The daughter is explained by Father James’s late vocation.) For many directors, that would be more than enough material for one film — a character study, leavened with a good dose of pathetic fallacy, and finishing in an ambiguous minor key.

But McDonagh, living up to the family reputation, turns the action on a B-movie plot device: the audience knows, from the outset, that this hard week in the life of a local priest could end in his murder. The opening scene takes place in a confession booth, as a survivor of clerical abuse tells Father James that the best revenge on the Catholic Church would be to kill a good priest instead of a rapist in a Roman collar.

“I always like to entertain,” says an unabashed McDonagh. “I didn’t want to make a little gem. I hate little gems. I hope The Guard wasn’t perceived as that. I thought it was a little more aggressive than that. I read a lot of crime novels, so I like to have a crime hook. This isn’t a film about abuse; it’s a film about a good priest who’s threatened that he will be killed in seven days. So I hope audiences see that thriller hook and come in for that. Then, they can get all the other stuff around it.”

All that “other stuff” amounts to one of the most convincing film meditations on the priesthood in Ireland. It’s a dilemma of our moment: the priest remains a visible public figure in Irish life, but robbed of his past status and power. Priests are living representatives in their communities of an institution that, to many, is no longer legitimate.

In Calvary, Father James is tolerated at best, disrespected at worst — it’s easy to imagine many Irish priests nodding in recognition.

That the film veers successfully into this territory is largely down to Gleeson’s towering performance. He is more than the rock at the centre of the film; in truth, he dwarfs all its other elements.

Though Father James is literally a pistol-packing preacher, Gleeson gives him depths, doubts, and a humanity way beyond that.

Around him is a constellation of characters, none of whom, save perhaps Father James’s daughter, played by Kelly Reilly, is anything more than a type.

But, says McDonagh, it’s not meant to be realistic. “It is a heightened reality,” he says. “You’re seeing so many extraordinary individuals in the same place at one time. Would that happen, really? No. But, it’s a movie, you know; I hope you get lost in the film and only later think, ‘you know, everyone in that film was a bit mad’.”

The villagers in Calvary are merely functional: the unrepentant serial killer, the atheist doctor, the misanthropic millionaire, the unctuous bishop. They exist so we can see different aspects of Gleeson’s character as he encounters them. They are marking posts in Father James’s week, as he moves towards his destiny.

Nonetheless, a capable and diverse supporting cast — featuring Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, M Emmet Walsh, Domhnall Gleeson, Dylan Moran and Pat Shortt — puts flesh on their bones. If nothing else, they are memorable.

“I love Graham Greene,” McDonagh says, “and he had these books he called ‘entertainments’, separate from his serious work. But I always found the entertainments more interesting. The entertainments had all the themes he’s got in the serious books, but were more enjoyable to read. So it should be called Calvary: An Entertainment.”

McDonagh laughs at the comparison, but he has a point: minor genres are often the best ways of capturing a moment in time.

“It has those sorts of B-movie elements,” he says. “I didn’t want to push people away. There are so many films that go, ‘this is going to be so serious and arthouse — are you going to be up to the experience?’ But that can push people away. I don’t want to push people away. I want them to come in. Now, even if they come in and think, ‘oh, not sure about that, that was a bit harrowing for me’ — well, at least I’ve got them in first, so they can make up their own minds.”

* Calvary goes on general release on April 11.