Calvary: McDonagh’s Black Comedy-Drama

calvary_posterCALVARY, John Michael McDonagh’s black comedy-drama, begins with a bang–actually a threat.

In a small Irish parish – in the midst of his confession – a man tells the notoriously good-hearted local priest, Father James, that he should settle all his affairs since the confessor plans to murder him this coming Sunday:  thus begins a pre-murder mystery.

Over the next seven days, the marked priest moves through his doubt-ridden community making amends and meeting with the various hostile suspects who seem to be everywhere in this small town – from a caustic, agnostic, opinionated doctor to a guilt-ridden financial speculator with a “business proposition” for the priest, to a jealous husband and a cheating boyfriend who do not wish to be judged.

As he engages with a wide swath of parishioners who each may have their reasons, justified or otherwise, for vendettas against him, an increasingly sinister atmosphere seems to close in around Father James.  Yet, with the Sunday showdown rapidly approaching, the priest finds himself confronting not only the confounding limits of modern faith and his own impending mortality, but also realizing his strength in the lost arts of grace, forgiveness and humility.

calvary_4The film is the second written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, following the acclaimed THE GUARD, utilizing much of the same accomplished ensemble cast that garnered praised for CALVARY’s star, Brendan Gleeson.

THE GUARD was a raucous crime comedy, a buddy cop movie with friction between a corrupt Irish policeman (Gleeson) and an uptight FBI agent (Don Cheadle).  CALVARY, though fiercely witty, heads into more emotionally complex and unabashedly moral territory.  The result is a wickedly droll portrait of an embattled man of the cloth (Gleeson) forced to confront modern life’s volatile mixture of desire and sin, corruption and compassion, while keeping his faith alive.

calvary_3_gleesonGleeson recalls:  “What must it be like to be vilified for the sins of others, as part of an organization that you have joined, albeit with different aspirations? What intrigued us was the idea of how difficult it must be to uphold a sense of truth and a sense of goodness when you’re being vilified. John said, ‘If I wrote a good priest would you play him?’ I said, ‘Yes I would,’ without hesitation.”

The story follows the contours of a conventional thriller, but rather than a whodunit, McDonagh wrote a “who’s-gonna-do-it?” with his inquisitive priest trying to come to terms with why a parishioner feels driven to the depths of murder, at the same time as he comes to terms with the unresolved strands of his life, his profession and his own personal search for comprehension and relevance.  The kicker is that he has only seven days to do so.

“The plot’s ticking clock is both a reference to Hitchcock’s I CONFESS, and to the five stages of grief,” McDonagh comments.  (The stages of grief, based on the model of psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, each of which manifests in the midst of the story’s murder-mystery.)

calvary_2_gleesonThe writing of CALVARY is significantly outside the normal bounds of the crime genre because its main character is very much fueled by virtue.  “It’s a lot more difficult to write for a good character because the narrative drive in a thriller is usually more from the anti-heroes or villains in the story, so that was a bit tricky,” admits McDonagh.

Though the harsh beauty and current economic distress of Ireland might echo the story’s themes, McDonagh always saw CAVALRY as a reflection of what is going on all around the world, transcending the charms of its locale.  “It’s not a film about Ireland and Irish troubles, it’s a film about everybody’s troubles,” the writer-director says.

The script brought aboard Reprisal Films’ producers Chris Clark and Flora Fernandez-Marengo who also produced THE GUARD.  They were hooked from the very first words of the script, a shocking confession of horrific childhood abuse followed by the merciless intent to kill an innocent man – namely, the priest.

“You start with a priest threatened in confession,” explains Clark, “and then he has to wrestle with his demons about whether, and how, he’s going to face his would-be killer.  There’s a mounting sense of suspense throughout, almost a Western feel . . .where you anticipate a HIGH NOON moment is coming.”

calvary_1_gleeson_o'dowdClark and Fernandez Marengo were also thrilled to reunite with McDonagh.  “John is a very confident writer-director,” says Fernandez-Marengo. “He knows what he wants.  He plans in a very detailed and thorough way.  His screenplay drafts are already highly developed.  In the case of CALVARY, you had a draft that you could go out and cast immediately.”

As production got underway, James Flynn of Octagon Films (executive producer on the premium television hits “The Borgias” and “The Tudors”) came aboard.  He too was lured by the script.  “The film is set up brilliantly,” says Flynn. “There’s the thriller element – but then there’s also a very poignant story that is about family, age, dysfunction and love.  It’s a broad and sweeping story covering a lot of themes and spectrums.”

CALVARY brings together several literary, artistic and cinematic threads in a deeply layered story in which macabre comedy is constantly dissolving into existential darkness, and vice versa. “The humor is anarchic, dark and lacerating, à la Bunuel; the mise-en-scène indebted to Andrew Wyeth; the philosophy to Jean Améry; and the transcendental style inspired by Robert Bresson,” remarks McDonagh.

That swirl of themes and moods would all emerge in a 29-day shoot in the starkly lyrical fishing village of Easkey in County Sligo, Ireland.  There, the raw, weather-beaten landscape remains largely unchanged, but where the world of a priest such as Father James has shifted seismically.