Calvary is a layered movie anchored by a fine performance from Irish actor, Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson has appeared in many high profile films like the Harry Potter series, Gangs of New York, and most recently this year’s Edge of Tomorrow. Yet it is with his smaller films (The General, In Bruges) that he has been able to give his greatest performances. That trend continues with Calvary.
Calvary is the second of a planned trio of films directed by John Michael McDonagh that star Gleeson; the first being 2011’s The Guard. These films are not connected by character, plot, or even tone. But they are related thematically. In Calvary, Gleeson plays Father James, the priest of a small village parish in Western Ireland. The film opens with Father James hearing confession from a mysterious parishioner who in the midst of confessing a tortuous childhood at the hands of an abusive priest, reveals that he is going to murder Father James because his abuser is already dead and that murdering a “good” priest will be a bigger story. He concludes by summoning James to meet him the following Sunday for his execution. The film then becomes a “who’s-gonna-do-it” as it chronicles Father James’s week as he interacts with a host of characters all with a seemingly bitter view towards the Catholic Church or religion in general, and consequently are all suspects. Ironically, many of these characters have rational reasons for their negative perspectives on Catholicism, God, and religion, yet James is by far the most likable character. And yet James himself is not an average priest. An alcoholic, he joined the priesthood later in life and has a suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly) whom he looks after, all of this accentuated by the looming threat over his life. As the film progresses, we become less focused on Father James’s fearful situation and more on the individuals surrounding him. While the identity of the threat is engaging, it is not particularly difficult to figure out, nor is it entirely important who it actually is.
Instead, as Father James goes about his week, the film becomes a sort of Canterbury Tales for the modern age. All of the characters James interacts with have a revealing story that reflects their status in society and that status is tempered with varying levels of sinful behavior. These questionable characters (the Atheist Doctor, the rich and corrupt ex-banker, the lustful housewife just to name a few) all invite the viewer to ponder the seven deadly sins during Father James’s appropriately poetic seven day journey to his supposed imminent death.
Thus, McDonagh has a rich, textured film here that is open to interpretation and with every question it answers, it poses a new one in its place. Ultimately, a microcosm is formed that revolves around a virtuous central character and as we watch him break down we can’t help but fear for ourselves. McDonagh enhances this discomfort with abrupt scene transitions that surprise us, make us wince, and keep us on guard. Calvary is a film that actually yearns to be preachy, and while what it preaches is not entirely clear you’ll be engrossed anyway. B+
Calvary is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.