Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) Talks John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary

The follow-up to The Guard has a great cast and a stunning setting, but slow-burning suspense and Catholic guilt doesn't play for everyone.

Richard Brody, writing for The New Yorker, recently put forth a premise that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: “The most audacious low-budget American independent filmmaking is threatened much more significantly by misplaced critical praise for art-house mediocrities than by Hollywood.” Art house mediocrities are easy to avoid, and I often do. The distributors that release these films have a reputation for quality that is largely based on one hit a year, with nobody paying much attention to the innumerable irrelevant films that they release. I’m not saying bad films; I’m saying films that can be taken or left, whose impact will always be minimal, films that will be forgotten by year’s end list-making time and won’t occupy space in the hearts and minds of passionate film-lovers.

I don’t want to get historical here, but I see now in such films something similar to the “cinéma du qualité” that motivated Young Turks in Paris in the late ’50s to take to the streets and get handheld and, you know, the rest is history. I mean, these clean-looking movies seem to be expensive and clearly come from some place of emotional resonance on the part of their makers but ultimately they just sort of sit there on the movie screen. I think about movies like this when people say, “Television is better than film nowadays,” because when I see a 95-minute movie that is pretty flat and doesn’t look like anything I haven’t seen a million times and just generally doesn’t work, I’d rather be watching True Detective or Sherlock.

It’s kind of a bummer to say that John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is this kind of film. It’s a bummer because McDonagh clearly has a unique thing that he wants to do, and his explorations of Ireland in this film are pretty honest and motivated by a sense of national sincerity that should be commended. And the film has a pretty remarkable cast of actors who are always the best part of whatever they are in. Brendan Gleeson is amazing, somebody I can always count on. Isaach De Bankolé is consistently excellent as well, but I would be hard-pressed to recall a guy who can and should be the lead in movies being given as little to do as he is here. It’s mostly the Gleeson show, but sadly he doesn’t get to be all crazy like in A.I., 28 Days Later or the Harry Potter movie he was in. He plays a priest named Father James who, in a pretty incredible sustained single shot that opens the film, is told in his confessional booth that one week from today he will be killed as revenge not for anything he has done but just because the mystery man on the other side was once molested by a priest and hates the cloth. The shot is probably three or four minutes long and after it ended, I couldn’t have been more excited to see where the rest of the movie went, both narratively and stylistically. McDonagh’s script must have been a lot of fun to read, otherwise he couldn’t have gotten all these actors, plus M. Emmet Walsh (as an American author who lives in Ireland for some reason), the guy who plays Littlefinger on Game of Thrones and Chris O’Dowd as a local butcher.

I was most excited to see Calvary because of Kelly Reilly, who I think is a really great actress and possesses a sort of ethereal beauty that is uncommon and that, here as in other films, nobody can really put to good use. The best film I have seen her in is a British horror movie from 2008 called Eden Lake in which she and Michael Fassbender end up in a sort of Straw Dogs scenario. It’s a great film and she owns it in just about every scene. Unfortunately this is not the case in Calvary, where she pops in and out every once in a while to let her hair capture light in an almost supernatural way and provide Gleeson with some connection to his past. She plays his daughter, who has recently tried to kill herself, and also her mother died a while ago, which is why Father James became a priest in the first place. It’s pretty heavy stuff, but straight out of a dramatist’s handbook and it never really goes anywhere because eventually she just leaves town, which is too bad because she really is pleasant to have around.

I have next to no understanding of the Catholic faith or the inner struggles that come with it. Irish Catholic I understand to be different from Italian Catholic but only because I’ve seen it in films. I feel like Calvary is from another era, when films like Sleepers and The Boondock Saints briefly captured (or perhaps manufactured) some sense of the darkness within the devout. It’s a theme that does next to nothing for me, nor does the culturally assumed understanding of “Catholic guilt” really work as a plot device unless you yourself suffer from it or at least relate to it. So movies that use this as their central theme have to go a little extra distance to make me connect, which Calvary doesn’t do, but perhaps this is more my failing than McDonagh’s.

By the time the day of reckoning arrives and Father James is face to face with the accuser from the first scene, I had forgotten that this was supposed to be what the movie was building towards, just as you may have forgotten it since I mentioned it a few paragraphs ago. The revelation of who it is couldn’t be less interesting and it feels like they could have filmed it with any character and decided later on which one to use. Father James doesn’t spend his week trying very hard to find out who is threatening him, or doing anything to stop it. Instead he falls off the wagon, brings M. Emmet Walsh some Maker’s Mark and just sort of wanders around town looking into people’s business like Father Brown. At one point, somebody torches his church, which did remind me briefly that he is a target, but the conclusion of this movie seems less like a culmination and more like an eventuality, which again, might be a Catholic thing, but I really wouldn’t know.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with Calvary. It was filmed in some spectacular locations, it’s full of great actors and Kelly Reilly pops up every now and then in some lovely natural light. It’s just sort of flat, and seems to realize this as a few scenes are shot with inexplicable Dutch angles or asymmetrical framing that seems fairly arbitrary. I think there’s a good movie lurking inside somewhere but the whole affair is played in such a minor way that it never fully emerges and excites itself or the audience. I seldom end up seeing films like this because I am confident I can skip them and I am generally right. I don’t know if it will stay with me for very long (though Gleeson towering and scowling in his robes is fairly memorable), but I would watch another film made by the same director with all the same actors without hesitation.

Alex Ross Perry was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania in 1984. He attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and worked at Kim’s Video in Manhattan. He is the director of the films Impolex, The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth and Golden Exits and the writer of Disney’s Christopher Robin. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.