"Calvary", the new movie by John Michael McDonagh starring Brendan Gleeson, is as grim a piece of work as has ever been staged about rural Ireland.
It lacks the saving levity of The Guard, a previous work by the same director and lead actor which painted rural Ireland in a more benign if also star-crossed light, but managed a profundity this film can only shake a stick at.
Anything starring Gleeson is well worth seeing, and he turns in a magnificent performance as a parish priest desperately battling a cynical band of locals, his own doubts about his faith and a threat to kill him by a local during a bizarre confessional episode.
In one memorable scene Gleeson, back on the drink, rages like a clerical King Lear against the forces natural and supernatural arrayed against him in his life. Alas it is a scene wasted despite Gleeson’s extraordinary acting, as the individuals he rages against are simply not believable even in the McDonagh context.
It is familiar territory for anyone who has seen Martin McDonagh’s plays. It seems the London-based McDonagh brothers, like JM Synge before them, have become captives of a vista of the west of Ireland as a world populated by characters always on the edge of a black precipice where upon most of them fall into it.
The locals mostly consist of a man badly damaged by a pedophile priest, a gay police inspector, a damaged daughter of the Gleeson priest (he was widowed before entering priesthood, wouldn’t you know) a black man accused of kinky sex with another man’s wife, the other man’s wife, a doctor taking joy in patients dying, a businessman in the throes of suicidal depression, etc.
Gleeson makes his rounds of each of these characters in the core motif of the film, but the blankness of the plot squeezes whatever elemental life there might have been out of the characters he confronts.
So you get the gist -- a family of black, morose characters, all intent on doing their worst, a typical McDonagh landscape, while arguing the toss on the great mysteries of life.
The brothers McDonagh, with the exception of In Bruges, a delightful film, have made the west of Ireland their hobby horse, and it appears to be populated with characters right out of hell.
The genre is close to what fellow writer Patrick McCabe attempts in the Cavan/Monaghan region as exemplified by the rage and violence in Butcher Boy by McCabe.
There is a pattern here of mad, violent and generally off the wall folks populating rural Ireland, a sort of Darby O’Gill meets The Exorcist undertaking.
Except this film jumps the shark and is one too many sharknados of mad and aimless characters inhabiting a wild landscape and projecting utterly amoral sentiment.
The landscape shots representing rural Sligo are amazing and apart from Gleeson the best part of the film.
But the McDonaghs need a new angle. This one is dropping horse manure as opposed to gold coins.
There is word that the third collaboration will see Gleeson in a wheelchair in London railing against the world. That should make for a refreshing change of scenery at least, even if the black anger remains.