Tag Archives: B+


Grade: B+

A modern passion play set on the rocky northwest coast of Ireland, “Calvary” is the sophomore feature by writer-director John Michael McDonagh, and quite different from his debut, the comedic action film “The Guard.” It does, however, share with that film its star Brendan Gleeson, who’s as craggy as the locale, and it offers an intriguing blend of high drama and dark humor.

Gleeson plays Father James, a priest serving a small parish in County Sligo. A big, hulking, bearded figure in his cassock, he’s a genuinely caring, spiritually driven individual who joined the priesthood only after the death of his wife. As the film opens, he’s visited in the old-style confessional box by an unidentified man who says that as a child he was molested by a priest and intends to punish the clerical establishment by killing Father James a week later on the beach. He knows the priest to be a good man, which, he argues, will be exactly the point. In other words, Father James will be dying for the crimes of others—as, in Catholic theology, Christ did.

The remainder of “Calvary” records the priest’s process to a potentially fatal encounter with the unknown parishioner as, in a sort of dark parody of the stations of the cross, he confronts possible suspects and others in the village. One is town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), whose wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) is having a blatant affair with car repairman Simon Asamoah (Isaach De Bankole). Another is wealthy local lord Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a lonely, drunken profligate looking for some sort of personal redemption. Then there’s Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a cynical atheist who ridicules the very notion of faith; Brendan (Pat Shortt), the short-tempered barman at the village pub; and Milo (Killian Scott), a socially awkward young man so desperate for sex that he’s considering joining the army as an outlet for his passion. One person who can certainly be ruled out, by reason of age, is Father James’ altar boy (Micheal Og Lane), and another is Freddie Joyce (Domhnall Gleeson), the imprisoned serial killer who asks the priest to visit him in his darkest week.

Father James receives little in the way of consolation or good advice from his clerical associate Father Timothy (David Wilmot), an obtuse stickler for rules wholly out of his element in Sligo, or his superior Bishop Montgomery (David McSavage), who offers nothing but bland platitudes. More generous in spirit but no more helpful are Gerard Ryan (M. Emmet Walsh), a crusty American novelist living out his last days in relative seclusion on an island off the coast, and Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), a French tourist whom the priest comforts after giving the last rites to her husband, the victim of a car crash. Somewhat more practical is Gerry Stanton (Gary Lydon), a cop who loans Father James a gun even as his lover Leo (Owen Sharpe) makes a flamboyant departure from the cop’s house.

The specter of death hangs over everything in “Calvary”—not just in terms of the demise of Teresa’s husband, the illness of Ryan (who asks Father James to procure the gun for him) and Joyce’s recollections of his crimes, but by reason of the fact that the week also sees a visit by the priest’s daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who arrives with her wrists still exhibiting the scars from a recent suicide attempt. And yet the film balances the quite heavy drama with shafts of humor—humor of a dark, biting sort, to be sure, but though the laughter might catch in your throat at times, the film does elicit it.

It must be admitted that many of the secondary performances in the film are theatrical turns of a very flamboyant sort—that’s certainly true of Gillan and Moran, but also of O’Dowd. The richness of McDonagh’s dialogue, as well as his directing style, encourages an oversized approach. But despite his size there’s not a hint of showiness or brassiness to Gleeson’s performance. He does get a sequence to express the priest’s anger at a situation that threatens the very foundations of his faith and vocation when he retreats to the bottle after many years’ abstinence and tries to exorcise his demons through violence. But for the most part Gleeson conveys, with remarkable control and reticence, a genuinely spiritual-minded man struggling to find a way to avoid a confrontation that might mean his death while at the same time overcoming fear and despair to accept what is going to happen without complaint. “Calvary” is a mystery in both senses of the term: it’s set up to push the viewer to try to figure out whom the voice in the first scene belongs to. But it also touches on what’s more broadly called the mystery of faith, through which a person like Father James willingly places his fate, as he would see it, in God’s hands.

The film is beautifully shot by Larry Smith, who uses the locations expertly and stages sequences like a church fire with both economy and precision, qualities also to be found in Chris Gill’s editing. Production credits are first-rate throughout—from Mark Gallagher’s overall design to Fiona Daly’s art direction, Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costumes and Patrick Cassidy’s score.

The large issue that “Calvary” raises—of clerical abuse of children and its emotional toll—is one that’s been treated by other films in recent years, and one that’s become especially wrenching in Ireland of late. McDonagh has found a way to deal with it in a fashion that’s trenchant, absorbing, and quite distinctive in approach.


Grade: B+

Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to “There Will Be Blood” will inevitably be known as the Scientology film, and it does indeed inhabit the world surrounding a self-styled, L. Ron Hubbard-like “prophet” who’s establishing a cult-like movement during the early 1950s. But though Philip Seymour Hoffman offers a fascinatingly intense performance as the obsessive, manipulative, volatile Lancaster Dodd, as he’s called, and obviously relishes the grandiloquent language Anderson’s provided him with, he and his program, here referred to as The Cause, aren’t really what “The Master” is about. Its focus is instead on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled WWII vet whom Dodd brings into his orbit, with disconcertingly uneven results.

Phoenix, returning to admitted acting after the puckish performance art of “I’m Still Here,” gives a riveting performance as Quell, from the initial sequences of his strange antics on a Pacific beach during the war, which even his randy shipmates look on with shock, through his break with Dodd in England years later. Hunched over, squinting, with a tendency to hold his arms at his hips in an old-man pose, he brings the tormented, unpredictable ex-sailor to unsettling life, exploding at an instant from quiet menace to rage. After the war we see him as a portrait photographer in a department store, ogling the floor model but abruptly attacking a customer, an obviously well-heeled businessman, after which he takes a menial job as a farm worker. After an incident involving another laborer who falls ill from a slug of Freddie’s homemade hooch, which he distills from anything at hand, he dashes away to escape a beating and winds up in a drunken stupor on a yacht taking Dodd and his bevy of followers through the Panama Canal to New York.

The two immediately hit it off. It’s fairly easy to see why in Quell’s case—he’s both puzzled and awed by the strange, pontificating Dodd, and is in desperate need of some guidance. But why should the latter effectively adopt Quell? In part it’s because he takes to Freddie’s brewing expertise. But one gets the feeling that it’s really because Quell is the ultimate challenge: if Dodd can work his salesman’s magic on Freddie, can anybody be beyond his reach? (Of course, Dodd might also have an inkling of the fact that Quell can serve as a private enforcer, spontaneously going off on those who disrespect his mentor.)

That’s demonstrated in a scene after their arrival in New York, when Dodd’s the focus of attention at a party where he’s challenged by a outspoken skeptic (Christopher Evan Welch), whom Freddie later assaults. But that sequence also shows Dodd’s quick temper, too, when he snaps back at his questioner with a venom that spurs Quell on. He just controls it better—though he has another outburst later on, this time with a long-time supporter who questions the “evolution” of his movement.

What “The Master” becomes from this point is an episodic, impressionistic account of the relationship between the two men, as Dodd’s cagey wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and sons—one devoted to his father, the other blithely dismissive of him—look on. There are occasional glimpses of Quell’s past, in particular his doomed infatuation with a young girl (Madison Beaty), but these episodes are more dreamlike (as are depictions of his sexual longings) than explanatory. Nor is Dodd’s history revealed: he arrives on the scene fully formed, and really changes little, his ambition well established by the first frame in which he appears.

Rather than a symphony with a beginning, middle and end, in fact, the film is really more a cinematic theme and variations, composed primarily of sequences in which Dodd seeks to induct Freddie fully into the movement through a series of exercises (including a question-and-answer session called processing that looks suspiciously like Scientologist auditing) and Quell is alternately drawn in and repulsed. The climax of this macabre dance comes in a beautifully composed jailhouse scene, when Dodd’s been hauled in for misappropriation of funds and Freddie for going crazy trying to prevent his arrest. As Dodd stands quietly watching, leaning against the bunk beds, the shackled Quell literally tears his cell apart, and when Dodd berates him for giving in to his animal drives, Freddie challenges his teachings as mere invention. It’s a bravura moment for both actors, who are equally histrionic, but Phoenix is in full-throated mode (as Hoffman was in “Capote”) while Hoffman is more subtly seductive.

The sequence is a high point of “The Master,” showing the brilliance of the two stars as well as Anderson’s in conception and composition. But it’s also indicative of the film’s major problem—it repeats essentially the same point over and over, and though the restatements build to the jailhouse tornado, as a whole the picture doesn’t rise to the revelatory close one longs for. Indeed, it ends more in obliqueness and ambiguity which, though perhaps thematically impressive, aren’t dramatically as satisfying as you might wish.

But even a flawed Anderson film is more interesting than most directors’ unequivocal triumphs. And this one is as beautifully produced as any of them. Though the supporting cast, even Adams, is largely overshadowed by Phoenix and Hoffman, the crew contribute work of a quality it’s impossible to ignore. Mihai Malaimare, Jr.’s widescreen cinematography is exquisite, capturing every nuance of period detail in the production design of Jack Fisk and David Crank, John P. Goldsmith’s set design, Amy Wells’s set decoration and Mark Bridges’ costume design. Editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty give the performances time to breathe without sacrificing forward motion, and Jonny Greenwood’s score adds to the sense of dislocation Freddie represents.

Though it doesn’t possess the single-minded intensity of “There Will Be Blood,” this is obviously a masterly piece of filmmaking. And like “Blood,” it provides a stage for two extraordinary performances.