By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 1, 2014 at 6:16AM
"Calvary" is an intense Irish drama about a good priest (Brendan Gleeson) who is threatened in the film's opening scene inside the confessional by a man who plans to kill him the following Sunday, on the beach. The priest, who made his vows after his wife died, knows who wants to kill him, and goes through the next week dealing with his troubled daughter (excellent Kelly Reilly) and a colorful group of locals. Over the course of the week, we try to figure out the would-be killer's identity--this is a who-will-do-it, jokes Irish writer-director John Michael McDonagh--as we meet as colorful and nasty a group of villagers as you could find. McDonagh admits that he supplies the nihilism and Gleeson the emotion. That's for sure. I welled up several times. This drama will make many critics' year-end ten best lists.
McDonagh has moved from writing novels to embracing filmmaking. His first movie, taut thriller "The Guard," was scooped up out of Sundance by Sony Pictures Classics and was embraced by critics and arthouse audiences. It starred Gleeson and so does McDonagh's second film, "Calvary," which was grabbed at Sundance by Fox Searchlight. (It opened in theaters August 1.) "Calvary" marks perhaps Gleeson's best performance to date among many others--he's been nominated for three Golden Globes and two BAFTAs, for McDonagh's playwright/filmmaker brother Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges" and TV movie "Into the Storm," but never the Oscar. (Tom Christie's review here.)
The filmmaker likes to make friends with his collaborators and to enjoy the journey of making a film-- this one shot on the Irish coast in Sligo, where McDonagh's family used to summer, and influenced by Andrew Wyeth, Ingmar Bergman, and Robert Bresson--with "actors I enjoy spending time with," he told me at Karlovy Vary (see my video interview below). Clearly, Gleeson is one.
For Gleeson, delivering this performance wasn't fun at all. It was tough, and he felt like he was being assaulted by one actor after another: "I found it very trying, to be honest. You're absorbing an awful lot of pain, and the cast is all invested on a very personal level. It became relentless and wearying as you went through it. I knew I was working with people of high integrity. John as always is meticulously prepared. But the schedule was terribly tight. It was an odd kind of masochism. I love working on this material but God almighty I was beaten up."
His director was "incredibly brave," Gleeson says, because "he took on big issues, big questions and challenges, and took them head on, not hiding behind being hardass or cynical. He had the guts to write about a good man."
Good, yes, but this is not your ordinary country priest: "He swears, drinks and shoots a gun," says McDonagh. The priest argues with each villager as they try to break him, at the same time that they don't want him to break, because he represents the best thing in themselves. "We all need someone like that in this world," says McDonagh.
McDonagh used the Preston Sturges screwball comedy template, he says, for this cast of "heightened, eccentric and idiosyncratic" characters. "This is not naturalistic," he admits. He likes giving each actor three or four really juicy scenes--and there are quite a few candidates for the gates of hell, from a cynical atheist doctor (Aiden Gillen from "Game of Thrones") and a cuckold butcher (Chris O'Dowd) to a heavy-drinking guilty survivor of the financial crash (Dylan Moran). In one climactic scene they all gang up on the priest at the village bar.
"It's like certain spaghetti westerns," says Gleeson in a phone interview, "where you go in the place where all the banditos hang out. You know they're not all in one small village. All those people are around any community, of course it's heightened.
Would you get all these people in one car? I've been in a couple bars where I've met them, I'm telling you!"
Knowing who the killer was was tricky for Gleeson. "That's the nature of filmmaking. I obviously had to play it as if I don't know, so that it's feasible to hold up to a second viewing. We were careful about it, not betraying [the killer]. [The priest] is under assault constantly in different ways anyway, he has his uniform on, his armor in place, going to battle with all these people. I tried not to think too hard about it. The best way around it was to keep it in the room but not state it."
The idea, Gleeson says, "is to give a good man, set on a pedestal to a ludicrous degree, a fall from grace. It's very hard, as so many people are angry with the level of betrayal they feel. It goes beyond religion, it's not purely Irish or Catholic. People are disillusioned with leadership. They feel morally or politically detached and let down and alienated. People don't even vote, they don't bother, there's no point. There's a massive loss of faith in structures set up to guide people all over the world. If you leave a vacuum, people are looking for a moral compass."
Gleeson did push McDonagh for more emotional scenes, and felt that his interaction with Reilly was the center of the film. "I wouldn't think I'm overly emotional," says Gleeson. "John writes tenderness very well but he's sparing with it. I think that's good. Tenderness should be earned as proper sentiment rather than sentimentality. Sometimes it can be hidden over much. The easier course is to hide behind it with a cynical comment. I encouraged John to look at the daughter. In the first draft, I missed her when she's gone, she left far too early. From an engagement point-of-view I knew who the father was by reading the scenes with his daughter, it was there, the emotionalism was there, it was heartbreaking. I became quite effected by it."
"Emotion helps with a bleak movie," says McDonagh. "I'm so cold I'd happily watch Michael Haneke and put no music in it. Music helps me fight against my own failings." This film is more about faces than dialogue, especially long silent closeup takes on Gleeson that tell us all we need to know.
Gleeson is a busy actor with enough range and gravitas to stand up to Robert Redford in "The Company You Keep," Tom Cruise in "The Edge of Tomorrow," and his own (unrecognizable) son Domnhall Gleeson in "Calvary."
"It was difficult," says Gleeson. "I was worried about casting him, that it would take people out of the film. But people didn't know! 'Who did your son play?' They couldn't figure it out. It was a weird situation. We voluntarily went our separate ways the week before the shoot. After we talked in rehearsal, we took our separate corners and came out fighting. At the end of the day when we finally had it in the can, we could be father and son again. It was very intense. I am very proud of how hard he threw stuff back at me. He hit me as hard as I hit him. He was terrific. It was great to have a scene with him. Without all that stuff, I'm proud of him anyway, he's a fantastic man."
Here's the interview with McDonagh.