Calvary

A man enters a confessional in a small Irish church and makes two startling declaration. First, he reveals that he was raped by a priest as a child. Second, he declares his intention to kill the priest listening to his story. Not because the priest he's talking to has done anything wrong, mind you. In fact, it's just the opposite. The man plans to kill a priest he knows to be a good man, because he believes that doing so will make a more powerful statement. The would-be killer grants the priest a few days to get his affairs in order, and even specifies a time and place for the event to go down.

The priest in question is played by Brendan Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), who has played a fair number of villains and antiheroes but who nonetheless has a knack for embodying decency. We have little trouble believing that Father James is a good man. He contemplates the choices many of us would immediately leap to: going to the police, arming himself and/or running away. He also seems to be contemplating the choice of sticking around and seeing how things play out. Meanwhile, he visits friends, parishioners, troubled souls and even his daughter (Kelly Reilly, Flight). Yes, Father James was once married, but joined the priesthood after his wife passed.

The film seems to meander at first, and it has a talky quality that occasionally makes it feel like a filmed stage play. At a glance, it may seem as if the movie is biting off more than it can chew. It clearly has a great deal on its mind, and it's topical in a way that feels both timeless and immediate. There were numerous scenes that had me flashing back to a host of real-world events. Some of these were events the film addressed directly (the Catholic church sex scandals, the war on terror), but others (Ferguson, Robin Williams' suicide) came to mind simply because the movie tackles some tough ideas that will always be relevant. Once we finally begin to understand what the film is attempting to achieve, everything begins to coalesce: still a play, perhaps, but a passionate one.

The film's title is an appropriate and helpful one, as is an opening quote from St. Augustine: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.” Whether or not that quote means anything to you is a decent indication of whether or not you'll appreciate what Calvary is up to. Christ figures are abundant in cinema – it's an easy, occasionally cheap symbolic shortcut (I'm looking at you, The Green Mile) – but few of them actually spend much time thinking about who Christ really was. Many religious folks will be frightened away by the film's foul language (it opens with a line that made one woman at my screening get up and walk out), but it's rare to find a movie that takes faith this seriously.

Gleeson's performance is quiet and lovely. How is it possible that this man hasn't received a single Oscar nomination? In many of his scenes, Father James spends more time listening that talking. Some of the individuals he converses with are genuinely desperate for guidance – or at least absolution. Other simply want to needle him or poke holes in his beliefs. Some even want to hold him accountable for the faults of the Catholic church as a whole (his potential killer included). He responds with grace and dignity, but he is human, and he can only suffer foolishness so long – more than one scene ends with Father James walking out in frustration. The assorted supporting players are required to make a strong impression with limited screen time, so the film casts actors who bring an immediately distinctive presence to the table: M. Emmett Walsh (Blood Simple), Chris O' Dowd (The I.T. Crowd), Isaach De Bankole (The Limits of Control), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan's real-life son) and so on. Some of these roles are played very broadly – almost distractingly so – but most of them work quite well. Reilly gets a bit more to work with, and suggests a tender yet complicated relationship with her father.

The director is John Michael McDonagh, who previously worked with Gleeson on The Guard. His brother is the esteemed playwright Martin McDonagh, who turned his attention to the big screen in recent years and gave us In Bruges (also starring Gleeson) and Seven Psychopaths. Their films have a lot of similarities: ribald humor, playful self-awareness, colorful characters, sparkling dialogue – and an intense emotional depth. In Bruges is the masterpiece of the lot, but Calvary comes close enough to set aside any notions that John Michael is a middling imitation of his sibling. Look closely, and you'll discovery that his latest effort feels an awful lot like the modern equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman film.

I will admit that the film's central mystery isn't much of a mystery: the killer's voice is so distinctive that the identity of the man making the threats is never really in question. Even so, that isn't really a problem because the film spends very little time pondering the matter. The real mystery is not who's trying to kill Father James, but rather how Father James will ultimately choose to respond to his situation.

There's more I'd like to say, but it's difficult to elaborate on why Calvary is so powerful without spoiling too much of the experience. It deepens in my mind the more I consider it, and its seemingly aimless structure seems increasingly precise. I keep running the film's closing images through my mind. I will not describe them, save for telling you that they reminded me of something Roger Ebert used to say: that a movie did not make him cry when its characters were sad, but when they were good.


Calvary

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Release Year: 2014
unning Time: 102 minutes