hero_Calvary-2014-1Today’s script comes to us from writer John Michael McDonagh. He is also the author of 2011’s The Guard—the most successful independently produced Irish film of all time—according to Wikipedia. He is [unfortunately for him] probably best known for being the older brother of playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh.

The script was recommended for reviewing by Joel Dorland on the site forums. If you haven’t had a chance to check those forums out yet, please do.

I am thankful for the recommendation because this was a script that made me work for its meaning. These Mcdonagh brothers are highly educated and wickedly smart.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) There is definitely a lot of “if you’re not a Catholic here’s some information to help you follow along” type of exposition in this script, like the following from page 9:

You didn’t grant him absolution,

He didn’t ask for it.

Well there you have it. The man is
not penitent. There is no contrition.
He’s threatening to commit a crime,
not asking for forgiveness for one.
The inviolability of the sacramental
seal does not apply.

You’re saying I should go to the

I’m not saying anything. The choice
is yours.

Which I won’t hold against the script. As a non-Catholic myself, some of the issues surrounding the rules of the priesthood were unknown to me, and I would have wondered about the truth values of those statements [and actions] in the script– if not for this exposition.

More important to our craft would be exposition related to our protagonist, Father Lavelle. We need to know what kind of man our author has chosen to be his Jesus. Lavelle is:

1. a partially(?) recovered alcoholic
2. a neglectful biological father
3. an engaged Spiritual Father
4. an unrepentant humanist
5. an apologist for his Religion—or is it his Humanism

In other words, he is Postmodern Symbol of Turn the Other Cheek Ideology. (1) All of these facts about Lavelle are revealed through dialogue based exposition, but at least they are scattered throughout and not concentrated into a single monologue. In most cases, they are also spoken about indirectly. These lines from 38 prove the point:

I’ll stick to the water.

I heard you liked a drink.

I liked it too much.

There’s no such thing as too much,
there’s only not enough.

While these lines, from page 71, unprove it a little bit:

Your mother dying killed a little
something in both of us, I know that.

It was a long goodbye if ever there
was one. I sometimes wish she hadn’t
hung on as long as she did.

She was stubborn, alright. But brave,
too. I wonder if I’ll be that brave, *
when it comes down to it.

It wasn’t just her dying. You were
missing in action a long time.
Before and after. When I needed you
the most.

Was it really that bad?

I don’t know, maybe I’m exaggerating.
You were a highly-functioning
alcoholic, I’ll give you that.

I’ve always thought the “highlyfunctioning”
part should cancel out
the “alcoholic” part. Like a double

Overall, I think the exposition is handled with much better than average dexterity:

8 out of 10 points.

Part B) Calvary is a script with a subtextual mystery that ties directly to its theme. [You know I’m going to love that.] I believe the Harte (2) of this script concerns Lavelle’s motivation for marching toward his own “crucifixion”. What does he think he can accomplish in allowing this to happen?

I’ll draw this out by working through the script sequentially, beginning on page 2:

I’m going to kill you, Father.
I’m going to kill you ‘cause you’ve
done nothing wrong. I’m going to kill
you ‘cause you’re innocent.
Not right now, though. I’ll give you
enough time to put your house in order.
Make your peace with God. Sunday week,
let’s say. I’ll meet you down on the
beach there. Down by the water there.
(with a laugh)
Killing a priest on a Sunday. *
That’ll be a good one.
Do you not have anything to say to
me, Father?

Not right now, no. But I’m sure I’ll
think of something. By Sunday week.

When first presented with the news that he is going to be killed for no reason, Lavelle has no response. He does, however, promise to think of something when the time comes.

What is interesting about Lavelle is that he actually knows who is plotting to kill him and does not act on this knowledge. From pages 8-9:

So do you know who it was?

REVERSE SHOT — LAVELLE seated opposite. Bereft of tea.

Yes, Your Excellency.
I know who it was.

Do you know him well?


Well enough.

And given his response to seeing his murderer arrive at the beach on Sunday to kill him [from page 91]

LAVELLE’s POV — the MAN gradually defines himself as JACK
BRENNAN. Wearing a plain white shirt, the cuffs turned up,
ordinary black trousers, black shoes.

As BRENNAN nears LAVELLE, he takes a gun from a trouser
pocket and holds it loosely at his side.

Take your hands out of your pockets.


I heard you had a gun.

LAVELLE slowly removes his hands from the pockets of his
soutane and turns them palms up.

Have to say I’m surprised. Thought
I’d have to go looking for you.

Just because I’m here, doesn’t mean
you have to go through with it.

I believe it is true Lavelle knew all along who was going to kill him. There is no surprise in this reaction, no “widening eyes” or “mouth falling open”. There is just Lavelle pointing out that their both showing up for the duel doesn’t necessarily mean someone has to be killed.

Contrast this with Jack Brennan’s reaction to Lavelle entering his butcher shop the day after Brennan announces to Lavelle that he wants to use Lavelle as his revenge against Catholicism. From page 15-16:

He chuckles and looks up —

LAVELLE has entered.


(glancing at the ASSISTANT,
who is serving a CUSTOMER)
Could I have a word in private?

(nervous laugh)
Sounds ominous. Where’s Johnny
Cochran when you need him, hah?

In which it is clear that Brennan is afraid he is going to be confronted about his death threat delivered in the confessional. Brennan’s reaction matches the context of the situation. He is both surprised and nervous.

In the meat freezer scene that follows [pages 16-17] murderer and murdered talk about Brennan’s wife and the bruises to her face which she brought to mass with her the day before. They never mention the confessional threat. They argue in the subtext about the necessity of Brennan following through with his plan:


Carcasses of pigs, and sides of beef, hanging from hooks.
The icy breath of LAVELLE and BRENNAN floating between
them as they converse —

Hope we don’t get locked in. We’ll
have to make love to keep warm.

I had a word, there, with Veronica,

You were over to the house?
Is everything alright?

Everything’s fine. I mean, no, it’s
not fine. Mass on Sunday, with the
shades and everything–

Oh that.

Yes, that. Have you been laying into
her or what’s going on?

Ah that wasn’t me, now. That was
that black fella she’s been seeing.
Coloured fella, I mean, sorry.
Didn’t mean to be racist, slip of
the tongue.

You’re saying he beats her up?
Well don’t quote me on it. I mean,
that’s what I’m assuming, like.
She talks in riddles half the time,
I can’t get any sense out of her.
I think she’s bi-polar, or lactoseintolerant,
one of the two. I never
know where I am with her anymore.
I’m glad to have her off my hands,
to be honest with ya.

Even if this new fella’s knocking
her about?

Sure what’s that got to do with me?
Not everyone can carry the weight
of the world, Father.

What about your marriage? The oaths
you took?

(with a laugh)
The oaths I took!

He sees the look LAVELLE gives him and stops laughing.

Listen, Father, she’s been a lot
happier since she’s been seeing him,
a lot calmer and more settled down,
like. I’m not under surveillance
any more either, I can reel in home
whatever time I like. So everybody’s
happy. Now where’s the harm?

LAVELLE looks blankly at him.

Will I cut you a nice side of beef
to be taking home with you, Father?
Freshly slaughtered.

The important line concerns the “oaths you took”. Even though Lavelle delivers it to Brennan, it’s clear the line is meant as a question to himself. Lavelle wants to know, from his murderer, what that person thinks his responsibility is in allowing himself to be murdered. Brennan tells him [basically]: selfish pursuit of one’s own happiness far outweighs commitment to principle. As in the confessional scene, Brennan’s answer leaves Lavelle speechless.

LAVELLE looks blankly at him.

It’s a day later, but Lavelle still doesn’t know what to say.

Brennan does not enter the script again until the mid-fifties. The clock has moved to Wednesday night. The script structure totters on its midpoint. In plot point terms, someone has just burned down Lavelle’s church. What MUST be remembered about this scene is that Lavelle knows who the most likely suspect is because he knows who is plotting to kill him. From page 59:



I’ve called the fire brigade,
Father. For all the good it’ll do.

He stares at the fire, his mouth open, enthralled.

HARTE lights a cigarette.

They won’t get here in time.

LEARY looks on, a hand to his head in shock. *

LAVELLE circles the church, realising there is nothing to
be done, the entire building is afire.

Why didn’t anybody see?

FIONA finds him, pulls at his sleeve —

Come away, Daddy.

Why didn’t anybody see?

Lavelle has two lines here. More accurately, he has one line delivered twice. What is the point in him asking:

Why didn’t anybody see?

twice? I believe its because he knows if someone had been watching, what they would have seen was Brennan setting the church on fire. Had Brennan been seen, he would have been arrested, and the murder plot would have been extinguished. In subtextual terms, Brennan is wondering why no other humans are willing to help him. Why is he in this all alone? Why, in garden of Gethsemane terminology, has he been forsaken?

When the actual murder occurs, everything has been decided subtextually. Lavelle accepts his fate as postmodern Jesus/passion play stand in. There is no point in quoting anything from that scene to try and understand Lavelle’s choices.

For our purposes, we will instead look at the scene where Lavelle decides. From pages 85-86:


LAVELLE is looking out at the airplane, waiting for the
announcement to board.

Father. *

LAVELLE turns to find TERESA ROBERT standing next to him. *

She glances at his clothes, his cut lip. *

Oh hello. *

You are going to Dublin?

(pause) *
Just getting away for a while, *

I heard about your church.
A terrible thing.


You must be very upset.

Yes I am.

LAVELLE glances out the window —

LAVELLE’s POV — a coffin is being escorted to the plane

LAVELLE turns back to TERESA. She is watching the coffin.

I am bringing him home to his
family in Italy. Dublin and then

How have you been?

People here have been very kind.

I mean…

Some times I think I cannot go on.
(turning to look at him)
But I will go on.


PASSENGERS climb the steps of the airplane, LAVELLE and
TERESA among them. LAVELLE pauses at the top, waiting his
turn to enter the plane. He looks down —

LAVELLE’s POV — the coffin has not yet been loaded. The

TWO BAGGAGE HANDLERS are leaning against it. They laugh.


The Aer Arann plane traverses the sky. *


LAVELLE in his sports car, speeding back to Easkey.

In this scene it’s clear that Lavelle intends to leave and not face his fate. What is it that happens during his interaction with Teresa that changes his mind? I see only two possibilities:

1. Teresa’s line about going on even when she thinks she can’t.
2. The baggage handlers laughing when they lean up against Teresa’s husband’s coffin.

In those two statements I see commonality. The first seems to be telling us that life is almost not worth living. The second goes as far as suggesting the result of EVERY life [death] is a joke. How does that convince Father Lavelle to return to his fate?

We’ll finish the discussion when we get to theme.

7 out of 10 points.

Part C) I feel this script struggles [a little] with it’s character individuation. Basically, I’m leveling the same complaint against Calvary that I leveled against The Counselor. It feels like everyone in the script has the same biting sense of humor [and biting education] as the author. Some of the characters are unique, but a lot of the subordinates sound the same. For instance, I’m not sure you could tell the difference between Veronica and Fiona, or Harte and Ryan, without their cues.

This isn’t an enormous issue with the script, and Lavelle, the most important character, is extremely well done. However, it is true the spectrum of people depicted seem to have the intelligence and sense of humor of their author.

6 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

Well, this script starts with a metafictional mushroom cloud:


FATHER JAMES LAVELLE, fifties, is idly reading Moby Dick.
Dressed in an old-fashioned black soutane. He hears
someone enter the confessional. Marks his page. Waits —

I first tasted semen when I was
seven years old.


Nothing to say?

It’s certainly a startling opening

What is that, irony?

I suppose that is irony… at least in the classical Greek sense. To me, it’s more like a verbal punch in the face. The first two pages continue this vicious trend by outlining the rest of the premise. A man, abused by priests as a child, intends to get his revenge against the world by killing a “good” priest rather than a bad one. He figures there is more entertainment value in this choice.

There’s no point in killing a
bad priest. But killing a good one?
That’d be a shock, now. They wouldn’t
know what to make of that.

From there we meet a few of the parishioners, Father Leary, and the Bishop. After this, Lavelle collects his daughter form the train station. This is [almost] dissonantly scaled back from the first two pages. I was left wondering why no one was actively following up the threat. Put succinctly, I was worried [by the bottom of page 10] how the differing tones would ever mesh together.

I was invested in the story, but I wasn’t completely sold it was going to work:

15 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) Fortunately [for the length of this review] this script does not have a classic structure in terms of plot points. The setups and reveals all concern subtext and theme. We’ve already discussed subtext and we will shortly get to theme.

The “story” is designed to make us ask ourselves two questions about Lavelle:

1. Will he allow himself to be murdered?
2. Why, or, why not?

I found this to be an interesting structure [it’s like the Anti-Gravity], but it would be disingenuous to suggest in the rating that this script is something to imitate for its story design:

5 out of 10 points.

Part B) Citing the subtextual discussion above as proof, we can posit that the engine of this script is:

Is there anything in Life worth dying for?

A priest with a death appointment is one of the better instances of protagonist to engine matching.

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) I find the pinch point of this script to come on page 78:

LAVELLE walks through the fields behind the rectory,
lighting his way with an old oil lamp.

Bruno! Bruno!

He goes on through the fields. Pauses, having spotted
something up ahead. Walks on —

LAVELLE’s POV — the dog lying dead.

LAVELLE looks down at the dog. Its throat has been cut. A
puddle of blood around its body. He crouches beside the
body. Touches its coat.

Ah what has he done to you?
(crying softly)
What has he done to you, Bruno? (3)

There can be no doubting, after this, that if Lavelle doesn’t do something, he is going to be killed. From this point on, the script picks up steam toward its Fade Out.

5 out of 5 points.

Part D) I take the theme of this script to be:

Align your actions with your beliefs, no matter the consequences.

I have been writing this review over the course of several days. I took my time with it because I wanted to be sure that this theme [which I take to be positive] is correct. There are a LOT of references to the theatre of the absurd in Calvary, and knowing John’s brother Martin like I do [A Skull in Connemarra], I was worried. Was this script just striking an absurdist pose?

Eventually, I decided it wasn’t. I may be wrong. I may be a casualty of my own designing. My impulse to find meaning in all stories is anathema to anyone with a nihilist bent. So, although I believe Lavelle’s characterization to be sincere, it is possible that another critic could write a wonderful essay in which the theme of Calvary is proved to be:

movie-death-calvaryLife is a joke.

As evidence for my interpretation, I can only quote the tone Lavelle takes when he meets Brennan on the beach. From page 91:

Just because I’m here, doesn’t mean
you have to go through with it.

Yes it does. It’s one of those…
self-fulfilling prophecies.
Did you really think it’d come to
this, though, hah?

I was hoping it wouldn’t. I thought
you were a friend of mine.

Ah sure, a friend is just an enemy
you haven’t made yet.

Cheap cynicism.

No, not cheap, now. That’s a cynicism
that was hard-won. That’s a cynicism
that was earned after a hell of a lot
of psychological and physical torture.

I take it back, then. But it’s
cynicism all the same. That’s the
difference between us, I suppose.

It’s very hard to interpret that passage as anything other than genuine. The difference between Lavelle and Brennan [according to Lavelle] is that Brennan is cynical and Lavelle is sincere. I see no other way to unravel these lines.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) It would be tough to argue the story being told is unique. We have a metaphorical passion play with a Catholic priest abuse scandal slant. Even the, “I kill you at a specified time in the future” angle has been done before.

3 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing, on the other hand, I do find to be unique. I love the way the subtext informs the theme. I also loved the fact that the author was brave enough to substitute subtext and theme instead of the more traditional setups and reveals. It gave the script the feeling of a play. However, the scope was just large enough to lend the necessary cinematic feel to the story. Accomplishing that, within the limitations of the structure used, is quite an accomplishment.

5 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)


It seems that this answer doesn’t even require an asterisk in case I mistook the theme for positive when the author meant it to be negative. The fact is [deconstructionists rejoice] I interpreted Lavelle as sincere. I interpreted his sacrifice as meaningful within the proscribed context. Unfortunately, I was left with a question I don’t think the script answers.

Did Lavelle’s sacrifice increase the goodness in the world?

6 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 75

Let me end by saying that, although I find the theme to be positive, I don’t believe it is religious. I don’t think Mcdonagh endorses Catholicism in the manner of Mr. Greene’s whiskey priest. Perhaps Lavelle [the character] embraced Catholicism for the same reason Graham Greene [the person who also happened to be an author] did, but I see the theme of this movie to be nearer to Interstellar than The Power and the Glory.

I see this Calvary as a celebration of humanism.


1. A fact which reminds me of a quote from the script. Page 21:

How is all?

At death’s door. You?

The same. Still using the old typewriter,
I see. Bit of an affectation.

My whole life has been an affectation.

That’s one of those lines that sounds
witty but doesn’t actually make much

I’ve italicized the self-referential part. My line about Postmodernism sounds like one of those things Critics like me say when they realize they are reading a literate work of Art and want to appear equal to the material. It can’t MEAN much, but it gets out of jail free by claiming that meaning is always ambiguous [by definition] in postmodern discussion. I always conflate “the modern” with Plato and “the postmodern” with Aristotle. I do this because it’s an easy to understand metaphor and a pretty fitting philosophical joke (by my count, I’ve now made three jokes in this footnote) at the same time. What I am meaning, in calling Lavelle a postmodern Jesus is that he is concerned with epistemology and not ontology. He is a product of the world, not ideas, forms, holy trinities, or even the often referenced Moby Dick [That’s number six. If I keep on, I will surely out Herrod, Herrod. You can then think of me as The Modern Herodotus of Fixion—that last one was almost opaque beyond the point I’m trying to make, so I’ll quit.]

2. A reference to the Atheist character’s name in the script.

3. I admit that Brennan denies having killed the dog. He admits to beating Veronica, but denies cutting the dog’s throat??? If anyone out there has an interpretation on why this is so, I’d love to hear it. Basically, I’m thinking that someone else killed the dog. I looked back through the script but couldn’t find support for an alternate dog killer. Perhaps, I am overthinking it.


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