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John Michael McDonagh uses words, pictures well in ‘Calvary’

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John Michael McDonagh wrote and directed the extraordinary “Calvary.”

Unlike America’s Coen and Farrelly brothers, the McDonagh brothers (of Irish descent and born in England) don’t work on the same movies.

John Michael McDonagh, older brother of Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”), made his directorial debut with the under-appreciated comedy “The Guard.” He follows with the extraordinary “Calvary.”

“Calvary” is about a troubled priest, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), who in the movie’s opening scene receives confession and is told that he is going to be killed in one week’s time.

McDonagh, a talented, focused writer — as well as director — has a penchant for crafty dialogue, using phrases such as “Machiavellian chicanery.”

“That kind of dialogue is a throwback to those ’40s movies, and the Preston Sturges’ movies,” says McDonagh, recently in The City to promote the film. “All the characters are erudite, literate people, and they all have this rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. That informs the characters you create. They can’t be idiots.”

McDonagh eventually realized his characters aren’t necessarily as artificial, as heightened, as he initially thought. His most extreme character happens to be based on someone he met in real life: “I’ve met characters like that in Ireland, probably not all of them in the one town, not all in the same place at the same time,” he laughs. “That’s what reality is. That’s the way I approach my writing.”

McDonagh doesn’t simply focus on words, either. He storyboards every scene, and understands the power of composition and space. He says he based the look of “Calvary” on Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of New England.

He also managed to hire cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Calling him “down to earth,” McDonagh adds, “My frame is quite precise, but the way Larry lights it is up to him.”

Actor Brendan Gleeson (“In Bruges,” “The Guard”) another collaborator McDonagh admires, gives perhaps his finest performance in “Calvary.”

“I thought on ‘The Guard,’ he would have got a lot more award attention than he did,” McDonagh says. “Whenever you have gags in a movie, awards bodies don’t like to give you awards. Hopefully he’ll get the attention he deserves for this one.”



Starring Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh

Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh

Rated R

Running time 1 hour, 40 minutes

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