John Michael McDonagh's "Calvary" is a gorgeously photographed, exquisitely acted, richly written tale of the underbelly of faith. At the end of a lackluster summer that seemed full of more malnourished product than normal, it's wonderful to sink your teeth into something like this that has so much to say and does so in so efficient a manner.
The film debuted at Sundance to mostly positive reviews, but I'd wager they weren't positive enough. McDonagh, along with his brother Martin, are two of the most vital voices we have in movies at the moment and "Calvary" might pack the heftiest punch of either of their filmographies. At at its center is Brendan Gleeson, a lone man of love against a world of hate.
The western iconography is impossible to ignore and indeed, both Gleeson and McDonagh flip some of those conventions on their ear in the film. Gleeson recently sat down with me to discuss the dark acerbic wit of the piece, the role of landscape in the film and his very own "High Noon" moment. Read through the back and forth below.
"Calvary" is now playing in limited release. It opens wider Friday, Aug. 8.
HitFix: The McDonaghs, Martin and John, have a very acerbic sense of humor that sets their work apart. How did you get on with John when you first met him before "The Guard?" Did you share that sense of humor at all?
Brendan Gleeson: He was less communicative. I met him — obviously it was kind of Martin's gig ["In Bruges"] and I met him at Sundance and I think then at the Globes. So he was more in the background and I didn't get to know him very well, to be honest. It was only when the script came in for "The Guard," and of course it was a no-brainer that you would want to do that. Then I began to know him a bit better. So it took a while to kind of get into a proper working relationship.
I liked him from the beginning, but it was a working relationship and you just never know until you get on set. I found him extraordinarily calm. I mean he keeps calling himself OCD and everything but he is meticulous. It's not a kind of obsessive thing for its own sake. He's meticulous in his preparation. He's meticulous in his writing. He's calm on set and he's collaborative in the way, you know, he has great respect for actors despite the fact that he kind of keeps slagging us off at every opportunity. [Laughs] He employs and casts good people and he gives them great characters to inhabit. So he's a very, very positive individual, although he keeps telling you that he's nihilistic to a fault. But actually he's betrayed by his own work, I think. He pretends to be a hard man and then he writes all this tender stuff and you kind of say OK, you're outed.
Since you two already had a sort of rapport built in from the previous collaboration, how did things evolve for the two of you on this one?
Well, I mean, basically we were just on the last night in Connemara and we still had two weeks to go in County Wicklow. But we hated leaving Connemara; it was just such a part of the story and the character in the film, really, that and Galway. And we were chatting. It was the first time we were able to kind of let our hair down a little bit. We were talking about how he wanted to write about a good man who was non-ironic, or at least the treatment of him was non-ironic, and that he as a person was not beyond irony but that he was a good man in a very true sense. And I had been kind of talking about these priests who had been accused of pedophilia wrong and I found - I said how on earth do you maintain your sense of yourself or your sense of compassion or hope when you've been besmirched by just kind of a false accusation. It's just such a heinous thing. And we got around, I mean, I think he's a cinephile, and there are a lot of priests on screen that he had thought about and so he said, "If I write it, will you do it?" So that's basically how it happened. And so I said of course I would.
Clearly, "Calvary" is a really dark tale underneath the sort of merciful levity that pops up from time to time. Was that a difficult head space for you to get into?
No. I have to say it wasn't, really. Increasingly it took its toll, I suppose, in a way. It was quite exhausting because the vitriol he's subjected to is very personally damaging and challenging because a lot of it is true. And these guys are just in despair and disillusioned and it proves more difficult than he imagined. To actually fight that, to absorb it and then to try to turn it around and inject some hope into this place… So the humor I think was part of the character. I think it pops up a lot in the national character in terms of the Irish. I don't think it's exclusively Irish but I think the kind of juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy is kind of an old tradition there and people, I think, deflect all sorts of things from grief to guilt. They deflect it with humor and gallows humor and all that kind of stuff. It's quite a cinematic kind of a boon because it does give, as you say, a release. It allows the audience to breathe a little and just get a little respite from the intensity of everything. But it wasn't a big challenge for me to do it. Being given these lines is just a joy. You're not thinking about, "Oh, how will I do this?" It's kind of, yeah, you're trying to rising into that place, but I think once you know the character it should come naturally. It never felt like I had to take a line that was going to be difficult to say. Once you knew this man the lines were perfect.
I obviously don't know if you're a religious man or what your feelings were on the subject matter here, and I respect that you withhold that when discussing this film. Nevertheless, was there anything about the project that gave you pause in taking the role?
No. No. No. Not at all. The only thing I was suggesting to them was that when I saw the first draft, the relationship with the daughter could be a little teased out more. We needed more of it. I wanted to see more of her because she defined him in a very particular way and that the scenes between them were of such pain and tenderness I felt she was a little undercooked, not so much as a character but as a part of the film. For me that was the most natural place to go, I suppose, because I'm a parent. It was the most natural place for me to inhabit, was that scenario with somebody, that they obviously have a soulmateship. And she has bandages on her wrists. I mean it's such a — the image itself is nearly enough without words. But no, there was nothing getting in the way. It was truthful. It was always truthful.
Kelly Reilly is great in that part. I really loved her in "Flight" and in this as well. She just seems like an actress who can do a lot with a little.
Totally. To combine whatever about the comedy/tragedy thing, to combine that vulnerability with such inner strength and being so fragile and at the same time having such an intellectual vitality, you know, having such love in her heart, that was patently there and strong. Once she walked in the door we knew this was perfect. She's pretty amazing, actually.