Tag Archives: john michael mcdonagh

Film Review: Calvary

Calvary Film PosterFather James is an innocent, good-natured Irish priest, but his life is thrown into disarray when someone threatens to kill him during a confession.

John Michael McDonagh’s 2011 dark comedy The Guard has become a bit of a cult hit and Calvary looks set to do exactly the same. It only received a limited release at cinemas so is likely to gain most fans from home viewings, which is a bit of a shame as it’s well worthy of far more attention.

Whilst McDonagh and his brother Martin (In BrugesSeven Psychopaths) might be best known for their dark comedies, Calvary is practically pitch black in its humour, verging on straight-up drama territory. There is still some comedy in there but it largely arises from the small, individual moments and interactions between the characters rather than any major incidents.

Because it’s the script that really shines in Calvary, as is the case with practically all of the McDonaghs’ work. The plot is relatively irrelevant for large chunks, but the script is always razor sharp with plenty of satire and social commentary. It also helps that it’s masterfully delivered by Brendan Gleeson (and everyone else) who perfectly blends his compassion with anger and hurt. This is proof that Gleeson is, without a doubt, one of the most underrated actors working at the moment.

The Irish landscape also plays a big part in making the film successful, as it did with The Guard, making the area feel remote and totally isolated, as if what happens will never be uncovered by the rest of the world. Despite the wide open spaces, it makes the film feel very claustrophobic, almost Straw Dogs-like, and adds to the feeling that Father James’ fate is inevitable.

The only thing that I felt didn’t really work was that it felt a little easy to do the whole priest and child abuse angle (not a spoiler – it’s mentioned in the first scene). It’s a massive issue, but just felt a little cheap. Other than that there’s very little to criticise. Calvary will no doubt go largely unnoticed by many but it’s well worth your time if you want a film that looks superb, is on the whole magnificently written and superbly acted.

Pros

  • Wonderful script
  • Great cinematography
  • Brilliant acting, particularly from Gleeson

Cons

  • Slightly predictable in its portrayal of the clergy

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film review: The Guard

The GuardThe Guard is a film that really should have attracted more attention. With very little hype surrounding it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s no more than a throwaway film featuring no-one of note. However, when you find out that it is written by John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh (writer and director of the acclaimed In Bruges), and features stars such as Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle and Mark Strong, you may be surprised the film didn’t garner a little more exposure.

The film sees the unorthodox Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) team up with ‘do-it-by-the-book’ FBI agent Wendell Everett (Cheadle) to tackle a drug trafficking ring that has chosen the unusual location of Ireland’s County Galway as its smuggling point. Those are the bare bones of the story but that’s pretty much all you need to get going. There are, of course, other plot points going on, but the basic premise is a very simple one.

To be honest, the story isn’t The Guard’s strong point. The whole ‘straight guy gets teamed up with maverick, they don’t get on but find a mutual respect for each other to fight a common enemy’ sub-genre is pretty specific, but has nonetheless been done countless times before. However, The Guard manages to stand out from others in this area, partly thanks to the film’s location and partly thanks to its excellent script.

First of all, the location. The area of Connemara on Ireland’s west coast hasn’t been the setting for many big films and, to be frank, it’s not hard to see why – there’s just nothing much there. Set most other films there and they’ll disappear into dreariness, but set a dark comedy filled with drug smuggling, grizzly murders, wild shoot outs and prostitute threesomes in the picturesque but somewhat dreary locale and it turns out to be a masterstroke. The counterpoint of the film’s subject matter against the Gaeltacht backdrop is something that really sets the film apart.

Gerry Boyle and one of his favourite hobbiesThe script also helps to give the film its unique voice. It’s clear that writer John Michael McDonagh is from the same writing mould as his brother as the dialogue is very reminiscent of In Bruges, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine some sort of collaboration had occurred between the two. The script is packed full of quotable one-liners and witty interchanges between characters that help turn a pretty standard story into something much more memorable. There are plenty of sharp exchanges, especially involving the three drug smugglers, with Mark Strong’s Clive particularly good.

However, it’s Brendan Gleeson’s Gerry Boyle that is the film’s driving force and, as you’d expect, it’s he who gets most of the best moments. With a weakness for prostitutes (two at a time) and happy to take a tab of LSD from a fresh corpse, Boyle likes to do things a little differently but is nonetheless passionate about catching the bad guys and saving the day. From his casual racism to his insistence he was an Olympic swimmer, Boyle is somewhat of an enigmatic character and one that everyone seems to abhor and adore in equal measure. Despite his don’t-give-a-shit attitude, we are also allowed to see Boyle’s more human side as he cares for his terminally ill mother. This doesn’t really do much to further the story in any way, but it’s nice to see the other side to Boyle’s character.

The film’s western-inspired finale gives the film a fitting ending and is a lesson in how to do an open ending with just the right amount of closure but enough of a chance for the audience to draw their own conclusions. The Guard isn’t a film that is going to revolutionise a genre, but it is one that can stand proudly amongst other similar films. The witty script, unique location and diverse characters all combine together to help a film succeed where it may otherwise have paled into mediocrity.

Words: Chris Thomson

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