Calvary, Spider-Man and the Problem of Tone

As a fight, it wouldn't last long. As a drinking contest, not much longer.
No, they don’t go together. That’s kind of the point.

Too much cinema-going leads the brain to make strange connections. You wouldn’t think that Calvary, a small-budget Irish film about a rural priest facing a death threat, would have much in common with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, one of the biggest-budget blockbusters of the year. And yet here we are. They’re the most recent two films I’ve seen, and one thing leaped out at me from both of them: the problem that they have in establishing a tone.

(Spoilers for both movies below, though as few of them as I can get away with.)

The heart of Spider-Man rests on the troubled relationship of its two main characters, Andrew Garfield (one part wiseacre to two parts Woody Allen) and Emma Stone (mostly luminous). In fact, the lion’s share of making the audience care rests on Stone’s shoulders, as Garfield also has to deal with the other half of the film, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, breathtakingly implausible.

All superhero stories, by their nature, require some suspension of disbelief from their audience. But there’s a large step from the comparatively grounded approach of the Marvel Universe (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) movies to Spider-Man. In the former, the characters are coherently part of the world built around them. In the latter, we have two characters dealing realistically with emotional issues while surrounded by cartoonish supporting players and a story that doesn’t so much have a plot as it has a series of increasingly ludicrous contrivances.

Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan and Paul Giamatti form an impressive roll-call of antagonists for our hero, but they’re asked to play one-note caricatures: neurotic, twitchy and nuts, respectively. As a result, there’s no impact when their activities or desires cause problems for the star-crossed lovers. DeHaan comes closest to a plausible motivation, but in order to force through the ending they want, the writers require that no one does anything that might make the slightest lick of sense.

That Spider-Man was written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise: together with Damon Lindelof, they’ve been responsible for some of the gravest crimes against narrative cinema in recent years. Where the film works at all, it’s mostly down to Stone and Garfield. Where it doesn’t, it’s due to a focus on action set pieces and the fact that despite being a sequel, large portions of it are used to set up a hoped-for megafranchise of spin-off characters. These two worlds just never fit together properly.

Calvary suffers from a similar problem, in a more low-key fashion. Brendan Gleeson plays a priest who took holy orders after the death of his wife, fracturing his bond with his adult daughter. A good man trying to do good, he finds himself the target of a victim of clerical abuse who threatens to kill him. Throughout the course of the film, Gleeson’s stoicism in the face of this threat slowly cracks as he deals with varying attitudes to the church in modern-day Ireland.

There’s plenty of material in that idea for a great film, and Gleeson and Kelly Reilly (who plays his daughter) probe carefully at his sense of guilt not over his sins but over his mistakes. The problem is that they exist in a very different film to most of the supporting characters, whom writer-director John Michael McDonagh portrays in a manner not far removed from Father Ted, with its vicious caricatures of Irish rural life. Aiden Gillen, Chris O’Dowd and Dylan Moran are all fine actors, but rather than interacting with Gleeson’s dilemma, they offer the sense that he’s encountering alien creatures, rather like a human being surrounded by Spitting Image puppets. Gillen’s character even points this out when he notes that the “atheist doctor” is a bit of a cliché. No less so is Moran’s fat cat banker, lurking in his country estate and awaiting the legal proceedings against him.

Worryingly, this seems to have been lost on audiences beyond this small island, where perhaps rural Ireland is seen as being populated by such over-the-top characters. McDonagh’s is a shotgun approach to making points about Ireland, its changing attitude to the church and religion and what counts as morality when the old certainties have been washed away.

McDonagh evidently wanted to make something as darkly comedic as his earlier The Guard while exploring a “much more serious and dramatic narrative.” Unfortunately, the two strands of Calvary, the satire and the human drama, run in parallel rather than feeding off one another. There are laughs to be had throughout the film, but more space given to Gleeson might have made the choices his character makes as doom closes in seem plausible rather than contrived.

3 thoughts on “Calvary, Spider-Man and the Problem of Tone”

  1. Have to agree fully about Calvary… I enjoyed the parts where they fleshed out Gleeson’s character and it would have made an interesting movie in its own right. But it would have been a movie in a lower-key and so outside of the McDonagh “template” – hence the ending, which ruined the whole thing for me. Still, I did get to sit in a cinema for the first time and think “wow, I really live there” so the cinematographer has my vote!

    1. It was beautifully shot, though the occasional cut to landscape did feel a little forced at times (“Look, isn’t the west of Ireland beautiful!”). I haven’t seen The Guard, having missed it when it was in the cinema. It would be interesting to compare and contrast the McDonagh brothers’ output – there are similarities there but definite differences too.

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