Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson have conversations in Calvary.
Questions about the futility of faith are at the forefront of Calvary, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s sophomore follow-up to The Guard. Here, he reteams with star Brendan Gleeson to tell a different sort of story – one that pulls no punches and evinces that patented McDonagh family wit (see also, brother Martin’s phenomenal In Bruges), but that pivots from dark comedy to deliver a poetic and sincere meditation on what it is to be a lonely believer amid a sea of hedonistic heretics.
Calvary is the type of movie that reminds me why I watch movies. It’s beautifully shot, thoughtfully written and naturally acted. It’s funny and profound, surprisingly idiosyncratic in its cadences and yet satisfyingly inevitable in its conclusions.
The film's opening words set the tone. "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old." The line is spoken by an unknown parishioner to Father James (Gleeson), a salt-of-the-earth type who maintains his composure enough to dryly retort, "It's certainly a startling opening line." What comes next is tougher to take in stride. The confessor explains he was raped as a boy by a now-dead priest, and that he has decided to kill a good priest – this particular good priest – as retribution, because, well, it would be more shocking than killing a bad one. But at least he's considerate – he offers Father James a week to get his life in order, claiming he'll meet him on the beach the following Sunday.
The rest of the film plays like a guess-the-would-be-killer for the audience, but not for Father James since he knows exactly who he was speaking with in the confessional. For him, the week is less about finding a way to salvage his life than it is about finding a way to salvage his faith. The cynical locals (played by the likes of Aiden Gillen, Chris O'Dowd and Dylan Moran) don't make that easy on him, as each one is a conceivable potential murderer. Neither do his own demons (alcoholism) or the appearance of the daughter (Kelly Reilly) he had before entering the priesthood.
Gleeson always brings his A-game, but this is the best I've ever seen him. His work as Father James is towering yet understated, the type of complex and nuanced performance that deserves to win an Oscar, but miraculously doesn't even get nominated. He's constantly jostling between strength and vulnerability, hope and despair and levity and seriousness, sometimes within the turn of a single phrase or a flicker of the eyes. And that doesn't even cover just how perfectly simpatico Gleeson is with the McDonagh language (for a more populous American analog, think Samuel L. Jackson speaking the words of Quentin Tarantino).
At one point, Father James suggests there's too much talk of sins, and not enough talk of virtues, calling particular attention to forgiveness. Anyone who knows diddly about Jesus's death should know what the title of the film is alluding to, and, given that, should also be able to predict where things are headed. Father James considers running away, but ultimately opts to answer for the sins of others like his God before him.
However, the final scene of the film powerfully hints at the notion that forgiveness doesn't require a sacrificial lamb, just the fortitude and willingness to tap into the virtue within. This is a bleak and bitter film, but there's enough in its ending to restore faith, maybe not in God, but definitely in humanity, which is more than enough given all the soul-crushing brutality in the world. A