Written and Directed by: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, Domhnall Gleeson
“Certainly a startling opening line,” is about all that Father James (Brendan Gleeson) can manage in response to the mystery parishioner who enters his confession box and states the cause of his grievance. You can discover this opening line for yourself when you watch Calvary, suffice to say that its shocking content and shockingly nonchalant delivery set the tone for this satire on modern Irish morality: edgy, irreverent and just a wee bit too broad for its philosophical ponderings to win out.
The unseen confessor informs Fr. James that he has seven days to put his affairs in order because he’s going to kill him – a good and innocent priest – as symbolic retribution for abuse suffered as a boy at the hands of another. Will Fr. James acquiesce and present himself as the sacrificial lamb on the appointed hour at the appointed place? Will he report the threat – he suspects he knows his tormentor’s identity – or will he look to resolve the situation himself?
If the title card quote by Saint Augustine doesn’t clue you in to how Calvary decides to play this dilemma then back to Sunday school with you! If you still need a guide to recognizing your saints then you’ll probably take the movie at face value and find it ludicrous and ham-fisted. Over the course of the seven days, we meet the inhabitants of the rural coastal parish Fr. James ministers to. The who’ll-do-it mystery is irrelevant – every suspect is equally venal and amoral – as the story is more concerned with hitting every red-button issue to plague Irish society in the last 10 years: African immigrants, the economic crisis, loosening sexual mores, suicide and the failings of the Catholic church are just the tip of the iceberg.
The supporting cast is sprinkled with well-known (this side of the pond at least) Irish comedians and character actors but most are crudely-drawn caricatures, either mouthpieces to air our collective national grievances or strawmen to appease them. As Aidan Gillen’s coke-snorting, widow-screwing physician observes of himself, “The atheistic doctor? A clichéd part to play. There aren’t that many good lines.” Meta ever, Calvary?
Against this backdrop of over-kooked (yup, with a K!) humanity, only Kelly Reilly (Flight) as Fr. James’ daughter – he answered his vocation after his wife’s untimely death – visiting from London provides any kind of support worthy of Gleeson’s own understated performance. Critics have called his “career-defining” and “towering” but I think that’s judging it against the flimsy other characterizations around him. He’s a formidable talent when given more than just shady CIA hacks to portray and his twin collaborations with John Boorman, The General and The Tiger’s Tale, are in much better service of his range. Still, it’s a credit to him that he manages to pull a flesh and bone character from the paucity of the role as written, even as the script decides to play that old cinematic staple – the recovering-alcoholic-falls-off-wagon card – and throws a loaded pistol into the mix for good measure.
Director John Michael McDonagh’s previous movie was The Guard, a likeable slice of Irish crime comedy put through the Tarantino blender with Gleeson in the title role. Here his camera is well served by two commanding natural assets: the stunning Atlantic coastline of County Sligo and Gleeson’s equally rugged bear of a face on which hangs heavy the burden of the cross Fr. James is forced to carry. Calvary, named for the mountain of execution where Christ took the place of a sinner, asks you to consider the cost of atoning for modern human frailty. Had the script been a little less “referential” and a little more “reverential”, it might have made a bigger convert of this particular heathen. — Mike Reilly