In the movies of John Michael McDonagh the spiritual can be savage, the humour baleful, the abuse evocative, and the everyday tender. Born in London but undoubtedly true to his Irish heritage, McDonagh has helped to create a vision of his homeland that encompasses the landscape’s harsh beauty and the inhabitants’ unpredictability; in his stories the expected framework never quite falls into place, so that there’s always the chance that a simple conversation or banal request could somehow run off the rails. The traditional and the modern intermingle, and the resulting friction – like some of the expletive-punctuated insults – is invaluable.
McDonagh was late to filmmaking, writing the screenplay for the Gregor Jordan and Heath Ledger bushranger saga Ned Kelly in 2003, but not directing features until he was in his forties (his younger brother, Martin, is the writer/director responsible for In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths). He took his sensibility to America for his third film, 2016’s patchy War on Everything, but it’s his debut and follow-up, The Guard and Calvary respectively, that are his distinctive totems. “Every moment of life has its own logic,” suggests a character in the latter, and with McDonagh that’s true. It’s just that every moment also has its own humour. And its own contemplativeness. There’s an awful lot of humanity in these strange, sardonic tales.
In the long line of law enforcement officers populating motion pictures, few are as casually entertaining and yet quietly dedicated as Gerry Boyle, the sergeant in the Irish Garda from the country’s west played by Brendan Gleeson. First seen liberating the narcotics that have just caused a hoon’s car accident, Gerry is a foul-mouthed arse-kicker whose discovery of a dead body with his new offsider, Aidan McBride (Rory Keenan), is a masterclass in misdirection. He’s dedicated to his pleasures, but open about it: Gerry has no time for genuine corruption, which is why he perseveres in a joint investigation of a drug cartel with an FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle).
The exchanges between the pair – Wendell can give as good as he takes – are deliriously dry, but as the story unfolds you come to appreciate Gerry’s breadth. He is close to his dying mother (Fionulla Flanagan) – slipping her a hip flask – and smart enough to crack the conspiracy put in place by his adversaries, a group of philosophical cocaine importers played by Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham. Gerry is genuinely perplexed at life’s complications and the role makes splendid use of Gleeson’s bulk and the great flexibility in his expressive face. Gerry could be a grand fool or a buffoonish genius, and it’s only at The Guard’s conclusion that you realise that McDonagh allows him to be both.
Brendan Gleeson’s collaboration with John Michael McDonagh flowered for this terrific drama where faith is both a blackly comic conceit and a matter of life and death. The actor read every draft of the screenplay and had a year to prepare for the role of Father James, a Catholic priest in Sligo who hears confession one day from an unidentified man who was sexually abused as a child for years by a now dead cleric. His response will be to kill an innocent priest – “Sunday week, let’s say,” he adds. In the days that follow James tends to his parishioners while wondering which of them – notably, there are 12 – could be planning to murder him.
Calvary is about the hard road of belief. James, who before entering the priesthood was widowed and now has a grown daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), has a genuine vocation, but his flock are full of mocking excuses and outright defiance. “I feel like I ought to feel guilty,” muses a wealthy businessman (Dylan Moran), whose crimes in the country’s economic collapse have gone as unpunished as those of predatory priests, and there’s also a disturbed butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a nihilistic doctor (Aidan Gillen), and a male prostitute with a Jimmy Cagney fixation (Killian Scott) on James’ beat. Where it would be easy to flee, James decides to stay, as much to satisfy the vengeful victim he can’t otherwise help as to confirm his commitment. Few films mix the funny and the profound with such ease.
Follow the author here: @CMscreens