The most famous brothers writing and directing films today may be the Coens (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy). Even more remarkable for my money, though, are the McDonagh brothers, each of whom writes and directs his own films independently of the other. So far, neither has done anything less than terrific.
Martin McDonagh’s feature films are In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012), profane comic thrillers with originality and rich characterization. Elder sib John Michael McDonagh’s first film as writer/director was The Guard (2011), starring Brendan Gleeson as an Irish cop partnered with FBI agent Don Cheadle on the trail of drug smugglers. As of this writing, The Guard is the most successful independent Irish film ever, just eclipsing the younger brother’s In Bruges.
John Michael’s second film, Calvary (released in 2014 and now available for home viewing) is the best of the lot and just as good as this year’s various award nominees, if not better. It’s also quite different in tone and substance from either of the brothers’ other films.
Profoundly moving and thought-provoking, the witty film has clever plot development and characterization. Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, parish priest of a small Irish town who, in the film’s opening, is visited in the confessional by a man who promises to kill him in a week. The unidentified non-penitent’s reasoning is straightforward enough: Repeatedly victimized as a child by a pedophile priest, he now intends to seek a vengeance that will matter, since the priest he intends to murder is also innocent.
The film follows Father James through the week as he considers the man out to kill him. He attends to his personal and pastoral duties; among those is to comfort and counsel to his grown daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), recovering from a suicide attempt. (Anything but another philandering cleric, Father James was formerly married, but entered the priesthood after his wife’s painful and protracted death.)
Though Father James has many friends and acquaintances, most seem indifferent if not contemptuous of the Church. These include an elderly writer (M. Emmet Walsh), a cynical physician (Aiden Gillen, Game of Thrones), and a resident multimillionaire (Dylan Moran) who, despite his incredible wealth, has lost everything of true value in his life. There’s also a butcher (Chris O’Dowd) whose wife is having an open affair with an African immigrant, all three of them brazenly ridiculing Father James for his efforts to stop her from being physically abused by either man. On the positive side is a young woman whose faith remains firm and grounded despite the death of her husband in a senseless accident.
And there are others.
Featuring compelling, winning performances by its ensemble of talented actors, particularly an absolutely masterful, restrained performance by Brendan Gleeson, Calvary never shies away from those kinds of issues (like clerical abuse) that have disenchanted so many with the Catholic Church. Instead, the film focuses on a decent man who tries to practice his very real faith with compassion and humanity.
A visual treat as well in its use of the Irish landscape, Calvary is a magnificent achievement by John Michael McDonagh and his cast and a real testament to the power of love and forgiveness.