Coming straight off The Guard, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary proves how versatile both he and lead actor Brendan Gleeson are. Calvary demonstrates that McDonagh is capable of making a dark comedy with The Guard, but also has the range to make serious dramatic pieces. After The Guard, Gleeson had his work cut out for him for him to be believable as the lead actor in a dramatic piece. Upon viewing Calvary, it was relatively difficult to see Gleeson as anything other than a comedic actor. When Father Leary (Wilmot) or Jack Brennan (O’Dowd) would confront Gleeson’s character James Lavelle, I expected Gleeson to have a witty sarcastic remark a la Gerry Boyle. Instead, Gleeson portrays Lavelle is straight-faced and deadpan – a virtual opposite of his character in The Guard. After a few scenes, however, Gleeson becomes believable as this character and gives a superb performance. Both of these films, The Guard and Calvary may have had a different demographic, but McDonagh uses many commonalities that unite the two films.
Both films feature similar settings. A beach is used for both films, although in Calvary, McDonagh uses the beach more aesthetically. An example of this is the opening shot of the kid on the beach, in the middle of the frame, completely symmetrical, with the rays of the sunlight decorating the frame. In a later example on the beach, Father James gets shot in the head and blood flows from behind him in slow motion. Here, McDonagh, who one may think is known for his compelling dialogue, uses the beach setting as an opportunity to add visual flair to his film. There was also the bar setting which served an important purpose in both films; in The Guard, is was the location where Boyle and Everett got to know one another well, and in Calvary, it was where Boyle went to drink to excessively.
One notable comparison between the two films is the irony involved with Gleeson; in The Guard, Gleeson plays an inept member, or rather, unorthodox member of his occupation; he tampers with crime scenes, he drinks on the job, and he disposes of evidence. In Cavalry, however, Gleeson portrays one of the best and most moral of his occupation while many others have participated in crimes of scandalous nature. Both characters are mirror images of one another.
Perhaps the slight weakness to the film is that it wasn’t subtle enough about being an anti-Catholicism film. Throughout the film, priests are portrayed as sinister child molesters and McDonagh uses graphic detail when making this point. Father James may be one of the good priests, but Father James’s goodness doesn’t send the message that good priests are possible, but on the contrary, his goodness stems from him despite his priesthood. Father James drinks excessively to cope with the problems of the priesthood, as of being a priest is analogous to alcoholism itself. Toward the climax, viewers witness Father Leary reading “The God Delusion” as if McDonagh is trying to send the message that he has been cured from religion. More religious symbolism is the present in the film, too, as Father James, sinless in his priesthood, is executed for the crimes of other priests, analogous to Christ. Interestingly, Brennan is redeemed for his murder of Father James; his murder is not portrayed as if it was in cold blood without purpose, but the film offers him redemption, as if Father James’s execution was necessary or inevitable.