Written by John Michael McDonagh
Calvary is a story about Father Lavelle and the way the people and the world around him challenges his faith. Lavelle is a priest who only joined the priesthood late in life, following the death of his wife. He drives a red sports car and is surprisingly frank with people, in such a way that raises questions for the audience about Lavelle’s devotion to his religious calling. Other people in his small town where everyone knows each other openly question his faith and don’t bother to wait for him to leave before mocking him and his profession. Some call it stupid, others call it evil. Only the widow of a recently deceased husband understands his perspective, and she demonstrates a profound commitment to her own faith which ultimately gives Lavelle strength in the third act of the script.
This story is told over the course of a week. On Sunday, Lavelle is visited in the confessional by an unseen man who tells him he was raped by a priest and plans to kill Lavelle in one week’s time. His reasoning is that killing a good priest will have more of an impact than killing a bad one, and anyways, the priest who harmed him is already dead. Lavelle listens to the man and doesn’t object to anything he says. He seems unable to find the right answer because there isn’t one. The story then ends with the man killing Lavelle exactly as he said he would. In the midst of that, the real dramatic question isn’t whether Lavelle will die or even who the self-proclaimed assassin is. The real question is “is Father Lavelle a good priest?” Does he deserve that title, and thus, his death at this man’s hand might verify to himself his devotion to the Catholic faith.
Lavelle is a quiet man, his words carefully chosen, but over the course of the week he encounters 12 different people (whom he already knows) who begin to prod him until there’s hardly anything of him left. It’s like the 7 days God spent building the world, but in this case it’s 7 days spent demolishing Lavelle’s world.
ACT 1: (page 1-30)
Sequence 1: (page 1 – 9.5)
We introduce Father Lavelle’s internal crisis. After the man tells Lavelle he plans to kill him, Lavelle seems to carry on as if this were any other day. He’s willing to die it seems, or he simply doesn’t believe the man. We then meet Michael, an altar boy with whom Lavelle works closely. Their relationship has the burden of thematically relating to the man in the confessional who claimed he was raped by a priest. There is the question in the back of our mind (at least mine), that Lavelle might not be such a good priest, but everything in his interaction with Michael feels positive. Lavelle clearly cares about the boy.
Then we meet Father Leary who starts to gossip about the town, saying he’s stunned by the things people tell him (in confessional) that they do. Lavelle tells Leary it’s not their place to judge, establishing Lavelle as the moral authority over Leary.
That night we see Lavelle on his own, in a sparse room that suggests he’s nothing more than a blank slate. Following his conversation with Leary in which he says they are only meant to listen, not judge, this quiet scene establishes Lavelle as a solitary man for whom death might be a way to sainthood. What does he have to lose? If his role is to be there for people in need, than maybe it’s his duty to be killed by a man who needs someone to kill.
The sequence ends when we meet Lavelle’s daughter, and we realize that he is new to the priesthood and that he does have something to lose.
Sequence 2: (page 9.5 – 30)
We learn more about Lavelle and his life before the priesthood, and this starts to make us understand why he might have questions about himself and his faith. It’s not a given that he is committed simply because he’s a priest. What if it was a midlife crisis as his daughter, Fiona, suggests?
Fiona has recently attempted suicide, but the way she and her father talk about it makes it seem like they have both stared death in the face and have a certain gallows humor about it all. This also reframes Lavelle’s behavior following the threat made on his life. He isn’t new to death, it surrounds him almost every day (as we will see in the people he meets). The man’s threat, as the story progresses, starts to feel like a metaphorical summation of everything and everyone that surrounds Lavelle. It’s all the guilt and fear he feels about his own life, wrapped up and given a disembodied voice.
Lavelle follows up on something Father Leary told him about a local girl, Veronica, who has been abused by someone. He talks to her and then goes to her husband, Jack Brennan. Jack tells Lavelle that Veronica has been seeing another guy, Asamoah, whom Lavelle then goes to speak with.
None of these characters treats Lavelle with any kindness. He is like a wasp that entered their home, but one whom they humor before trying to swat him away. Another character we meet is Gerald Ryan, an old, hermit writer who thinks about nothing more than death. Lavelle routinely brings him groceries, and this time Ryan asks him to bring a gun so Ryan can commit suicide.
Next we meet a wealthy man named Fitzgerald who mocks Lavelle’s occupation and claims that the church is only ever interested in money. The man tells Lavelle that he has a financial proposal to discuss with him later.
On the beach later, Lavelle and Fiona come across a dead seagull. It disgusts Fiona but seems to fascinate Lavelle. At the end of this act, Lavelle buys a gun, demonstrating the first step towards defending himself.
ACT 2: (page 31-82)
Sequence 3: (page 31 – 40)
A new character, Milo, asks Lavelle why people kill themselves, and in the course of their conversation, Milo says he has murderous tendencies and might just join the army. Lavelle explains that it’s wrong to join the army during peacetime. Slowly but surely, we are seeing Lavelle become more judgmental than receptive. He is no longer just listening, instead he’s speaking his mind.
Lavelle meets with Fitzgerald about his financial proposition, and Fitzgerald claims to seek forgiveness for his past sins, but Lavelle sees right through him and tells him he’s full of shit. In the course of their conversation, Fitzgerald compares his empty mansion (following his wife leaving him) to an empty tomb, another image of death. Fitzgerald than offers Lavelle a drink, tempting him, but Lavelle politely refuses. Later, with Father Leary, Lavelle admits to being a bit judgmental, like he thinks Leary is. After the conversation with Fitzgerald, Lavelle feels low, having lashed out at the wealthy man for “pissing on everything,” making Fitzgerald smile. He has brought Lavelle down to his own level, where someone like Leary already resides in Lavelle’s mind.
Sequence 4: (page 41 – 45.5)
Lavelle has a nightmare in which he envisions his own death (by gunshot), and then we watch him administer last rites at a hospital for a dying, young man. He talks with the doctor, Frank, who jokes about the whole thing because his only way of coping is with humor since he witnesses death over and over again. Lavelle then talks with Teresa, the dead man’s wife, and Lavelle says “what is faith at the end of the day? For most people it’s the fear of death, nothing more than that. And if that’s all it is, then it’s very easy to lose.” This gives us another lens with which to view the characters around Lavelle. They have no faith, most of them at least, so does this make them unafraid of death because they feel so close to it? Or does their criticism of Lavelle’s faith act as a similar buffer to the fear of death.
Following this, Lavelle talks with the doctor who tells Lavelle about an astronaut’s dream which ends with the astronaut meeting himself. It seems to be a commentary on Lavelle’s own personal journey. The doctor also tells Lavelle that he is only playing the part of the “atheist doctor, one part humanism to nine parts gallows humor.” He then compares Lavelle to the character of “the good priest,” forcing Lavelle to continue looking within himself. Who is he really?
Sequence 5: (page 46 – 59)
In a conversation with the old man Gerald Ryan, Lavelle gives him the gun and says there are no good reasons for murder, but Ryan says he can think of a few good reasons. Lavelle then goes to visit a prisoner named Freddie Joyce, a cannibal. The prison guard, once notified who Lavelle is there to see, is disgusted. It’s the first time someone else recognizes that Lavelle is on a trajectory downward. This visit on its own isn’t a bad indicator, but based on what we’ve seen we can sense Lavelle’s descent, so the prison guard’s reaction is more powerful on its own, not in the context of the visit. It’s the first time a character has looked at Lavelle with a sense of dread or horror.
Freddie tells Lavelle about the power of killing someone. It’s yet another perspective on death, this time from someone on the killing end rather than the dying end.
Later Lavelle goes to the bar and we see just about every character in town at this event. It’s celebratory, but pretty quickly things go south when Lavelle’s church is discovered on fire. It’s the first sign, since the first scene of the script, of the danger Lavelle faces. Throughout the story there are undercurrents of death, but this is the first time in a while that we get a sense of urgency.
Sequence 6: (page 60-82)
Lavelle talks with the police chief about who might do this. They first reason that it’s someone with a grudge against the church, but then the police chief says it might be more about a personal grudge against Lavelle and/or Leary. Lavelle must really analyze his own culpability. Is he part of the church or merely a spokesperson for the church? This personal grudge also represents the grudge everyone else in town has against Lavelle simply because he’s a priest. It equates Lavelle with the church.
Lavelle, in a last ditch effort, visits Veronica and tells her she can go have a career, saying “no one’s a lost cause.” Not long after, Veronica sees Lavelle at the bar with his daughter and implies that he was trying to sleep with Fiona. She is bating Lavelle into hitting her, bringing him down a notch like Fitzgerald did earlier, but he doesn’t. Instead, Fiona hits her.
Lavelle and Fiona achieve some catharsis as they discuss her mother’s death. She tells Lavelle that she felt abandoned when he joined the church, like she lost two parents and not just one. Not long after, he says goodbye to Fiona as she leaves town.
Lavelle discovers his dog has been killed, another sign of danger following the burning of the church. Rather than panic, he quietly mourns the dog and buries it, almost accepting that his death is near rather than trying to fight it off.
He goes to the bar that night and starts drinking, a clear a sign as any that he’s hit rock bottom. The doctor from earlier shows up and tells Lavelle a tragic story about a boy’s surgery gone wrong. It’s a horrible tale with no real point. All Lavelle can say is “why the fuck would you tell me a story like that?”
Drunk and angry following a fight with Asamoah and the bartender, Lavelle pulls out his gun and fires shots in the bar, not trying to hurt them, just to make some kind of point. Asamoah grins after this, happy like Veronica and Fitzgerald were happy after sinking Lavelle further into the much. The bartender grabs a bat and beats the crap out of Lavelle. He has never been more low and lost.
ACT 3: (page 83-97)
Sequence 7: (page 83-86)
This is the shortest sequence as it only deals with the fallout of Lavelle’s fall from the wagon and sets up the final confrontation that has been established since the beginning: Lavelle and death.
Father Leary leaves, telling Lavelle that he knows he hates him. Leary also questions his own sexuality and thus questions his role in the priesthood, as Lavelle has quietly been doing this entire time.
As he flees town, Lavelle runs into Teresa at the Dublin airport. She says “I will go on” in regards to life after her husband’s death, and this gives Lavelle the courage to return home.
Sequence 8: (page 87-97)
Lavelle puts himself together following the disaster of the end of act 2. He shares a moment with Fitzgerald who suddenly seems sincere about his behavior and poor treatment of Lavelle.
Then Lavelle talks over the phone with Fiona about forgiveness, and the scene direction tells us that we see all the empty locations in which they spent time earlier in the film. These locations feel haunted in their isolation and silence.
Lavelle goes to the beach where he sees a figure in the distance. On the dunes above, Michael the altar boy paints the beach, paying off an earlier moment in act 1 where Lavelle asks about Michael’s painting which depicts two dark figures on the beach.
The man is Jack Brennan, who we met very early in the story, in regards to his wife Veronica. Brennan struggles to pull the trigger, but he ultimately does, shooting Lavelle twice.
The story ends by describing a series of shots in which we see all the characters we’ve met throughout the story. Lavelle’s death feels like a metaphor for each character as they circle the drain, but in another way, Lavelle’s death feels like a sacrifice. He has taken everything they’ve given him. When one character needed someone to talk to, Lavelle was there, and when Brennan needed someone to kill, Lavelle was there. However, these brief descriptions of all the supporting characters, do no show any progression or growth. Only Milo is described signing up for the army, hinted at in his conversation with Lavelle, but joining the army isn’t a positive, as Lavelle said. The other characters are all seen doing stuff we would expect them to do, for better or worse.
Because of that, then, Lavelle’s death is hard to see as a sacrifice. Instead it’s a metaphor.