Father James (Brendan Gleeson) sits in the confession stall at his church. All is dark, except for a patch of golden light that illuminates his face. On the other side, an unseen man begins his confession. He explains to James that a priest molested him when he was a child, a traumatic experience that happened more than once. He then tells James that he’s going to kill him that Sunday.
James’face switches from an expression of patience and understanding, to one of confusion and semi-panic.
James has done nothing wrong — just about everyone in his flock has something good to say about him — and he’s certainly never molested anyone, but it doesn’t matter. The man has made his mind up. He hates James, what he represents and the role he holds in the community. And now that man wants to kill James for retribution.
So begins “Calvary,” John Michael McDonagh’s somber and skillfully made, new picture.
It’s set in a gloomy Irish town full of troubled and uncertain people. The picture’s tone is almost apocalyptic, and its characters seem ready to face the end. The impending doom slowly closes in on James, as well as on the viewer.
The screenplay — also by McDonagh, brother of fellow filmmaker Martin McDonagh — is essentially a series of one-on-one conversation between James and various members of his flock. Not surprisingly, a majority of them have problems. There’s Jack O’Brennan (Chris O’Dowd), a butcher whose wife is openly cheating on him with another man, and Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a lonely, self-destructive millionaire. Even his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) is suicidal.
Sometimes, they seek James out for help; sometimes, James seeks them out. Either way, the flock members don’t really seem to respond to him. Instead, they use the opportunity to give James their pessimistic take on the topics of faith, religion and life in general.
“Calvary” is very much a writer’s movie, dialogue-driven. Just about everyone has a profound insight of some kind, even the lowly hospital worker or the gay prostitute. The nihilism and utter hopelessness can get slightly fatiguing.
At the center of this dark drama is Gleeson’s performance. His performance in “Calvary” easily ranks among his best, most complex. It’s one of great-understated power.
The character of Father James is a peculiar mix of optimism and pessimism. We find out early on that he knows who’s trying to kill him and yet doesn’t do anything about it. He continues to try to help people the best way he can, even if they don’t want it.
“Calvary” is an impressive film, featuring a phenomenal lead performance, but it’s also awfully bleak. The talky nature and deliberate pace also will not interest the general audience. It’s one of those well-made, intelligent movies that I will most likely never watch again.