He is a good man with faith and compassion, but now he is going to be killed just because of that. “Cavalry”, a somber drama with a little touch of absurd comedy, slowly moves to its inevitable point like a funeral march as its gentle, thoughtful hero goes through what may be the last week of his life. While littered with the little moments of black humor generated from the undeniable absurdity in his unfortunate plight, the movie also has several quiet but powerful moments to reflect on later, and we come to more realize how sad and absurd his situation is as that fateful day is approaching to him.
The movie begins with Father James Lavelle(Brendan Gleeson) being notified that he will be killed exactly a week later. We see him in the confession room of his church, and an unidentified man behind the wooden wall between them begins his ‘confession’ with a shocking secret in his past. When he was 7 years old, he was raped by a priest in his neighbourhood, and that heinous act of sexual abuse continued for 5 years as leaving a deep wound inside him. That horrible priest in question died, so this unidentified guy, still full of his unresolved anger and torment, decides to kill Father Lavelle instead, for killing a good priest will draw far more attention from others. His logic is surely twisted to say the least, but, after all, aren’t we usually more alarmed and shocked to hear the news about good people being killed?
Father Lavelle seems to have a pretty good idea about the identity of the man who promises to kill him on next Sunday, but he is in a tricky theological situation which is similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess”(1953). The guy talks about his murder plan during his confession, so Father Lavelle cannot possibly reveal anything exchanged between them to others. He discusses his problem with his superior at one point, but the bishop does not help him much; while not being willing to take any responsibility for whatever will happen, he only suggests to Father Lavelle indirectly that he can bend the rule in this situation.
With fear and concern growing inside him day by day, Father Lavelle goes through the remaining days while interacting with the people of his rural Irish town. We meet an easygoing local butcher who is having a problem with his promiscuous wife, who is currently in the relationship with a mechanic from the Ivory Coast. We meet a rich banker who seems to be going through his own personal crisis while behaving like an arrogant, self-pitying jerk. We see Father Lavelle having a personal conversation with a socially awkward young man, who considers joining the army just for getting out of the town. There are also a bitter pub owner who is not so cordial to Father Lavelle; a gruff local cop who does not try to hide his sexuality from Father Lavelle; a cocky male prostitute who does not give a damn about his future; an aging American writer who is finishing his novel at his solitary residence; a sarcastic hospital doctor who never misses any chance to wield his cynical atheistic view in front of Father Lavelle, and a freckled altar boy who sometimes draws his painting on the nearby beach. As observing all these colorful characters in the town who can possibly be more than what they seem to be, I could not help but think of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, though the Gaelic background of the film reminds me more of “The Quiet Man”(1952) and “Ryan’s Daughter”(1970).
But, as I said above, the movie is more of a character study than a mystery thriller, and the mystery inside its story is simply a MacGuffin to lead us to more about Father Lavelle. He is a decent, open-minded man ready to provide solace and guidance for helping the people in his parish, but he does not have much success or satisfaction as the spiritual leader of his town. His fellow priest is ineffectual and spineless while his superior is venal and obsolete, and most of the people in the town do not feel much need to be saved or advised, and he is constantly reminded of the tarnished public image of the Catholic Church. During one small scene, he comes across a young girl on the road and walks with her for a while, but then the girl’s father appears and stares at Father Lavelle with suspicion as taking away his daughter. This may look odd to some of you at first, but you have probably heard about those awful cases of sexual abuses on minors by Catholic priests and how their crimes were covered up by the Church, and you can see how those despicable deeds make sincere priests like Lavelle more frustrated.
It is implied that Father Lavelle had a fair share of life experience before entering priesthood, and we come to learn a few things about his former life mainly through his estranged daughter who visits him. While he found solace and peace in the religion when his wife died, his eventual decision to become a priest hurt his daughter when she also needed help as much as he did. Fiona(Kelly Reilly) is not in a very good condition as reflected by the bandages on her wrists, but she and her father slowly become open to each other, and Gleeson and Reilly have a poignant scene as Father Lavelle and Fiona have a more honest talk as a father and a daughter.
The movie is the second work from the director/writer John Michael McDonagh, who previously wrote and directed “The Guard”(2011). That movie was a hilarious comedy about a quirky Irish cop who may be smarter than he looks despite all those incorrigible behaviors of his, and McDonagh showed through his debut work that he is a gifted writer/director like his brother Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directed two fabulous dark comedies “In Bruges”(2008) and “Seven Psychopaths”(2012).
Although it takes a far more serious direction here in contrast to “The Guard”, the movie is not without humor. The dialogues in McDonagh’s screenplay are sharp and precise, and they sometimes make small self-conscious winks while rarely stepping out of the overall low-key tone of the film(My favorite line: “How is it that for a third-act revelation?”). The characters revolving around Father Lavelle bring each own flavor to the story, and the vivid sense of locations is established well on the screen thanks to the cinematography by Larry Smith, who wonderfully captures the moody atmosphere surrounding green fields and wind waves.
As the center of the movie, Brendan Gleeson gives a terrific performance which is quite different from his no-hold-barred comic performance in “The Guard”(2011). He looks mostly restrained throughout the film, but he subtly modulates his performance in each scene as Father Lavelle listening and responding to different characters in his phlegmatic attitude. He is caring and concerned as gently but firmly pointing out what may be a real trouble inside that awkward young guy who wants a counsel from him. He suffers no fool, and he cuts directly through the self-absorbed bullsh*t from the rich banker who is probably one of the financial guys responsible for the recent economic disaster in Ireland. When he reaches his breaking point, we are not surprised about his outburst because we know well what has been frustrating him from the beginning. We cannot help but agree to what one character says to him at one point: “You’re a little too sharp for this parish.”
McDonagh also draws good performances from the rest of the cast, which consists of notable actors like Chirs O’Dowd, Kelly Rielly, Aidan Gillen, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze, and Domhnall Gleeson. Marie-Josée Croze has a brief but memorable scene as a French woman who has a quiet talk with Father Lavelle at the hospital chapel after losing her husband due to a sudden car accident, and Aidan Gillen has his own moment as his doctor character tells about quite a terrible incident he witnessed in the past, which is probably the origin of his cynical worldview. While Chris O’Dowd dials down his comic persona, M. Emmet Walsh provides a welcoming comic relief as an ailing writer waiting for death instead of Godot, and Domhnall Glesson, who is Gleeson’s son, appears as a young imprisoned serial killer who was once Father Lavelle’s pupil. During their private conversation in the prison, this young man reasons that God will forgive him as he feels really sorry about the atrocities he committed, and Father Lavelle can’t disagree with him. If God does exist, can’t God understand and forgive him as an entity who made him?
The title of the movie refers to the place where Jesus was crucified, and you may see an allegorical parallel between that biblical story and Father Lavelle’s difficult circumstance. When the movie finally arrives at the expected confrontation scene on the beach, it is proceeded with the inexorable inevitability which has been carefully built along the plot, and its final scene is emotionally resonating regardless of how it can be interpreted. The world may be just a godless random mess which does not care much about good and evil, but the movie somehow reminds us that we should not throw away our capability of compassion and understanding. It may turn out to be futile in the end as some cynics think, but we need it more to keep moving on in our life anyway.