“Calvary” is a frustrating movie in so many ways. It features an understated performance by Brendan Gleeson as a Catholic priest facing death. It is directed by John Michael McDonagh who wrote and directed the brilliantly dark politically incorrect comic thriller “The Guard” also starring Gleeson. And it asks some tough questions about the role the beleaguered Catholic Church plays in our lives. And yet, the scaffolding holding the story together is rickety. Shot mostly as two-handers between Gleeson and his fellow cast members, “Calvary” comes across as filmed theater with the obligatory low angle shot to make it look and feel cinematic. And the characters are, at best, emblematic, each one assigned a specific quirk or sin designed to test the protagonist’s mettle.
“Calvary” starts promisingly, with a tight close-up of Father James (Gleeson) as he sits on his confessional. A man tells him, off-camera, that he was raped for seven straight years since he was five by a priest now dead, and that he will avenge the deed by killing a good priest, since that would send a shock to the system. That good priest happens to be Father James, a man who heard the calling of the Lord after his wife died. The unseen man gives Father James seven days to get his affairs together: they will meet by the seashore the following Sunday. Father James knows who the voice belongs to but as any good priest will tell you, what’s said at the confessional stays at the confessional.
So, for the next seven days the good priest wanders up and down the streets and beaches and pathways of his small Irish community, putting up with the taunts and recriminations of a small group of citizens: the cocaine-sniffing atheist doctor (Aiden Gillan, a.k.a. “Littlefinger” from “Game of Thrones”), a local butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who may be beating his wife (Orla O’Rourke) who is having an affair with an African mechanic (Isaach de Bankolé), a rich man under indictment for his role in a banking scandal (Dylan Moran), an elderly American writer eager to die (a wasted M. Emmett Walsh), a rapist-murderer-cannibal (Domnhall Gleeson) who believes to have found God in his heinous crimes, and a young man who wants to join the Army because women have ignored him for far too long (Killian Scott). There appears to be not one redeemable, soulful, functional person in this small town. McDonagh wants his protagonist to carry a mighty cross on his shoulders as he makes his way to his own personal calvary, each character questioning Father James’ integrity and faith with snarky, in-your-face acts and remarks.
Into the fray walks Fiona, Father James’ daughter (Kelly Reilly), who recently survived a suicide attempt, a character as resentful of the priest and as dysfunctional as the rest of the cast. But she is at least far more complex and fully developed. Her scenes with her father are poignant: this is James’ last chance to come to terms with the pain he caused her when he joined the Church. We know that Fiona is completely unaware that these are her father’s final days, that this is her last chance to come to close that emotional gap that kept them apart for so long.
“Calvary” is, however, a magnificent showcase for Brendan Gleeson. We are so used to seeing Gleeson play these rough, tough characters that to see him play such a sensitive, hurt soul comes not only as a pleasant surprise but makes us realize that the movies have barely scratched the surface of what this mercurial actor has to offer. His weathered, craggy face, his soulful eyes, his gait, all hint at a man who understands the world he lives in because he actually experienced it. His Father James is a decent man, tolerant, even when he is pushed too far. It’s a towering performance, one that has a lot of faith in the director and the story and in the power of acting. And Gleeson has plenty of faith to spare.