The opening scene in “Calvary” wastes no time conveying the tone of the film – bleak, cynical, and disturbing yet with an odd touch of subtle dark humor. The scene opens with a shot of Father James in a confessional. The camera never leaves his face. He is listening to a parishioner talk about the horrible sexual abuse he experienced as a child at the hands of a now deceased priest. He says he is going to kill Father James in one week because killing a “good priest” would be a much bigger shock to the Catholic Church. The scene ends.
This brilliantly unsettling opening sets the framework for writer and director John Michael McDonagh’s stinging Irish drama. The story moves through what may or may not be Father James’ final week on earth. He spends the time going about his normal work in his Irish coastal town – tending to the church and tending to his flippantly immoral and ungrateful flock. We also see him getting a few personal things in order, you know, just in case.
Father James is played by Brendan Gleeson, an actor so naturally gifted and perfectly cast. Father James is an earnest and faithful man of the cloth. He is a man of integrity which allows him a degree of respect from the community. But at the same time that same virtue and integrity is what they hate about him. It clashes with their shameful and unrepentant lives. His encounters and conversations with these people make up the bulk of the story.
One by one we meet these townsfolk each with their own level of vileness. A fantastic supporting cast flesh out these heathens and ingrates. Chris O’Dowd plays a local butcher and abusive husband. His wife (Ola O’Rourke) is no saint. She shamelessly flaunts her affairs, her latest being with a cocky Ivorian (Isaach de Bankolé). Aidan Gillen plays a disgustingly calloused athiest doctor and Dylan Moran plays a lonely, pompous, and self-absorbed millionaire.
There are a handful of other characters that round out this motley crew of miscreants. All of them view Father James as a walking joke – a punching bag for their cruel and merciless ridicule and mockery. These are really bad human beings and we begin to wonder how much Father James can take. He truly is a good man (McDonagh stated he wanted to make a film about a good priest). We often see him bewildered by the gall of these people and it feels as if he wears down a bit more with each encounter.
Thankfully there are a few small rays of light among the downers. Father James has the opportunity to reconnect with his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). The two haven’t been close since her mother died several years earlier. Repairing the fractured relationship would feel a void in both of their lives. For James moments with Fiona are like a refuge and an escape. In a way it is for us too. These scenes give us (the audience) a slight break from the ugliness.
And then there is the mystery of who wants to kill Father James. Is it one of the people he encounters throughout the final week he is given to live? In a clever narrative maneuver McDonagh makes it clear that James knows who has threatened him. But we do not. So we also watch these encounters and conversations with a slight deductive eye. This isn’t the main focus of the story yet it’s a fun and crafty way to engage the audience even more.
“Calvary” is indeed a movie of conversations, one right after another. This could make some a little wary but it shouldn’t. McDonagh’s writing is just so good and each conversation seems important to the story and full of meaning. There is also some gorgeous imagery in the form of landscapes, ocean views, and green-coated mountains. It’s magnificent to see but it also serves as a sharp reoccurring contrast between the beauty of the scenery and the ugliness of the people living there. McDonagh offers several creative touches like this which douses his film with grit and energy.
And it all comes back to Gleeson, the veritable linchpin of this layered but slyly simple character study. The man strikes every note with an unmistakable honesty that comes through in each thoughtful response, in each perplexed expression, and each tired and weary sigh. There is a gelling, a chemistry if you will, between Gleeson’s approach and McDonagh’s script which gives us a realistic and sturdy anchor within the film’s almost otherworldly vileness. That clash is just one of the film’s many compelling components.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS