The opening scene of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary does not waste any time ensnaring its audience. A tight camera is trained on Brendan Gleeson’s craggy, bearded face as he sits in a confessional booth. A gruff voice speaks out from the dark. The voice comes from a man who was abused as a child in the most heinous ways by a priest of the church. He is cold, resolute, and his mission is clear. In an act of symbolic revenge, he will murder an innocent. This priest to which is is currently speaking, in fact. He would give the man of the cloth a week to prepare himself, to get his affairs in order, and on the following Sunday he will take his life. It is a simple and straightforward threat, one the priest has no reason to believe is a prank. The unwavering camera forces the audience to endure watching this priest as he transitions from bemusement to concern to fear. His assassin is heard but not seen, setting up a foundational mystery to track as Father James goes through what very well may be the last week of his life.
Father James lives in a sleepy little village by the shores of Ireland. His final week is a deep dive into the personalities of the town, often equal parts tragedy and comedy. James does his best to settle into business as usual, not discussing the matter with anyone other than a few fellow high-ranking members of the church, and otherwise keeping things quiet with his friends and parishioners. There’s Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Miran), the boorish drunken rich man living in a secluded, empty mansion on the hill, and Jack (Chris O’Dowd), the butcher rumored to be assaulting his wife Veronica (Oria O’Rourke), who gets around a little too much with, well, everyone it seems. All of this happens while his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) has come home to visit, compelled to see her father after a failed suicide attempt. One would expect this to be a dour affair, what with the Sword of Damocles hanging over James’ head and the themes of suicide, spousal abuse and death, but McDonagh’s tone is often refreshingly light. The humor is bone dry (these townspeople have a gift for the sardonic), but the cast has the right sensibility to toe that line without spilling over into something tone deaf.
It would be easy enough for McDonagh to construct Calvary as a whodunit, a race against time and mortality as Father James attempts to discover his assassin before the bullet is fired. There is certainly a version of this tale out there that goes in such a direction, but that is not what is provided here. It is clear from the first act that Father James knows exactly who his faceless assassin is (he recognizes the voice, after all), though it remains a mystery to the audience until its closing scenes. The focus is on this man and his relationships with the town, and the change in perception of the Catholic church in modern-day Ireland. It is not the untouchable bullet proof institution it once was, and while Father James is by all rights one of the “good ones,” the white strip of cloth around his neck is a negative influence in the town.
This film would not even remotely work without the strength of its cast. Calvary is one of those movies that arguably plays fast and loose with its narrative, and could easily fall prey to making narrative choices for the sake of convenience. There is no particularly good reason that Father James would not immediately go to the police, especially after he is reassured that the privilege of confession does not apply when relating to future criminal activity, or even just leave the town or not walk to the beach on Sunday. McDonagh needs a man like Brendan Gleeson to take the weight of the martyr onto his considerably broad shoulders (physically and emotionally), and he is more than worthy to the task. There is a quiet dignity to Father James, a man beset upon by all who encounter him. He is a measured rock, even-tempered despite the loonies surrounding him, but retains the force necessary to lash out when tempted by the bottle. Gleeson is the star, but his supporting cast is no slouch either. Kelly Reilly has been quietly impressing in films like Flight for some time, and she continues to mature into a capable waif of an actress, that perfect mix of vulnerability and rakish backbone. Their story is the most touching, though the rest of the town each get their moment or two in the sun and takes advantage with skill.
Calvary is a film that could easily be considered a bit of a downer, and for the most part this is a true statement. Its third act a a drawn out death march, the actions of a man who may believe he must atone for the sins of others or perhaps does not see the reason to continue on in a community that shows no interest in the church. Either way, Father James confronts that fateful Sunday with a quiet dignity. The reveal of his assassin is perfunctory, but Calvary was never really about that anyway. Fascinating often for what it is not, McDonagh has crafted a worthy tale, often as chilling as it is comedic, and one that will linger in the mind long after its credits roll.