I’m quickly beginning to think of Martin McDonagh as one of this generation’s greatest storytellers. I haven’t seen or even read much of his plays but Seven Psychopaths, Six Shooter, The Cripple of Inishmaan and (especially) In Bruges are all top-notch productions. The way he mixes humor, tragedy and revelations about the human condition is unlike anything anybody else is currently doing. That is except for his brother John Michael McDonagh. While John Michael McDonagh’s feature film directorial debut, The Guard, had some interesting components and featured a strong performance from the McDonagh brothers’ muse, Brendan Gleeson, it came off as a pale comparison of his older brother’s work. John Michael McDonagh’s newest effort, Calvary, is an even stronger and more assured piece of work but once again can’t seem to find a way to get out from under the shadow of Martin’s work.
Calvary follows an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) as he is told by a local that he will be murdered by him in a week’s time. The local was sexually abused by a priest in his childhood and as revenge he will murder an innocent priest just as he himself was at one time innocent. Just as the priest struggles internally with what to do in his predicament he must fight the external struggles that his community faces on a daily basis.
Like most McDonagh works this is a film that is meant to play better on repeated viewings as it keeps its themes close to the vest until the very end (but powerfully so). This is a richly written film that also finds a way to be just as powerful visually. The cinematography from Larry Smith is outstanding and John Michael McDonagh is showing an eye for the camera that might actually be better than his older brother’s.
That being said I can’t help but feel like I’ve seen this story before. Thematically, this film feels strikingly similar to The Cripple of Inishmaan (which had a well received run on Broadway with Daniel Radcliffe in the starring role this past spring), and the way in which it assembles its odd cast of characters also feels so redundant. So the film is left feeling unique in one moment to annoyingly repetitive in the next.
That isn’t to say that this film isn’t worth it in the end. The story and thematic conclusion are still interesting enough, and the visuals are, of course, splendid. Brendan Gleeson (who has such a way of delivering the words of the McDonaghs) and Chris O’Dowd also do strong work with their roles.
Calvary showcases a skilled director that is still trying to find a way to get out from under the shadow of his more famous older brother.