Calvary opens with Father James (Brendan Gleeson), the parish priest of a coastal Irish village, sitting in the confessional, listening. He’s listening to the words of an unseen parishioner who tells him the shocking and heart-rending story of the sexual molestation he’d suffered at the hands of another priest from age seven until he was 12. When Father James suggests that he report it to the authorities or seek professional help, he is told that the guilty priest is long dead. The parishioner still wants his revenge, though, and announces his intention to murder Father James himself in a week’s time. “There’s no point killing a bad priest,” he reasons. Murdering an innocent man would be far more dramatic, and it’s just what he plans to do.
Father James goes to the local bishop and tells him that he recognized the threatening man’s voice, but refuses to break the sanctity of the confessional. Rather, he makes the decision to go about his normal pastoral work in the hopes of changing the mind of his would-be assassin. He tries to intervene when he sees that the promiscuous wife (Orla O’Rourke) of the village butcher (Chris O’Dowd) has been physically abused by either him or the immigrant (Isaach De Bankolé) she’s been seeing, but he is mocked and rebuked by them all. He also attempts to counsel a sexually inexperienced youth (Killian Scott) who thinks that his pent-up impulses would be more effectively released as a soldier in combat, but bristles when the priest suggests that there’s something psychopathic about wanting to join the army in peacetime. Tact is obviously not one of the good Father’s gifts.
When he reports the death threat to the local police inspector (Gary Lydon), who is just concluding a dalliance with the local male prostitute (Owen Sharpe), the officer is surprisingly disinterested. In fact, cynicism and antipathy are the general reactions Father James receives throughout the town, from the virulently atheistic doctor at the hospital (Aiden Gillen) to the local millionaire (Dylan Moran) who wants to use his ill-gotten wealth to buy his way into heaven. Even the priest’s own daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), coming from London to recover after a botched suicide attempt, arrives with a suitcase loaded with hostility. Only the elderly American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) living out his last days in hermit-like seclusion, seems glad to see him, and that’s because he wants his help in obtaining a gun so that he may put himself out of his misery when his time comes.
Gleeson, who is onscreen for virtually the entire film, provides a masterful depiction of a man whose faith and compassion are profoundly tested. His facial expressions are deliberately kept to a minimum, but one can see the emotions working just below the surface. His interactions with the village’s disbelievers and miscreants are marvelous, but his scenes with Reilly have a special resonance. One in particular — a cliffside stroll during which Fiona reveals her long-standing resentment for having been abandoned by both him and her mother (after she died, he joined the priesthood) — really hits home. “ I lost two parents for the price of one,” she laments, and his tender reaction is one of the film’s best moments.
And when a convicted serial killer and cannibal (played in a perversely fun bit of casting by Gleeson’s own son Domhnall) asks him to visit him in prison, the young man, rather than seeking repentance, explains that he just wanted “someone to talk to.” As he reminisces wistfully about watching the light going out of his victims’ eyes and feeling like God, Father James explodes, retorting “You’re not God; no — you’re not.” And when circumstances finally drive the priest to the very edge, Gleeson’s meltdown is shocking and spectacular.
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh, who’d earlier teamed with Gleeson in 2011’s well-received The Guard, provides a scenario that succeeds in merging themes of faith and religion, the corruption of the church and the strange behavior of small, insular communities. And McDonagh’s decision to structure the film with a ticking-clock countdown to the fateful day is a wise one, giving it a drive that would otherwise be lacking in a story that is essentially a collection of character sketches. It’s far from a mere murder mystery, however — McDonagh is far more interested in the lives of these people than merely revealing “whodunit.”
Enhanced by Larry Smith’s beautiful cinematography of the commanding Irish coastline, as well as Patrick Cassidy’s unobtrusive score, Calvary presents a powerful, mournful portrait of an earnest man of the cloth who continues to bear his cross in an atmosphere of increasing apathy and faithlessness.