Calvary begins in a confessional, as a sinister male voice tells Father James (Brendan Gleeson) that he first tasted semen at the age of seven. The unseen man goes on to talk about how he was orally and anally raped as a child by a Catholic priest, but justice is now beyond reach because the priest in question is dead. So he’s going to take vengeance by killing Father James instead, even though James is a perfectly good priest who’s done nothing wrong. The logic goes that killing an innocent priest is fair retribution for the rape of an innocent young boy. So James is given precisely one week to set his affairs in order before the death sentence is carried out.
As Father James himself puts it, “Certainly a startling opening line.”
I mean… WOW. Right off the bat, the movie hits us with child rape in the Catholic Church, which is enough of a heavy issue for a story to try and deal with. But this intro tells us immediately that the film will also address issues of religion, guilt, and death, all of which are good thick meat for any character drama to chew on. Even the visuals are oppressively dark, since the entire scene is a single static shot of Father James sitting in shadow. Last but not least, we’re given one hell of a ticking clock, complete with subtitles that count down the days of the week throughout the film until that fateful Sunday.
And we get all of this in a single two-minute scene before the opening credits have rolled. DAMN. Talk about hitting the ground running!
I’ve heard reviews that call this film a “whodunit,” but that’s not entirely accurate. For one thing, the murder in question isn’t even “dun” until the end of the film, and it’s entirely possible that the murder may not even be carried out at all when the whole affair is over. For another thing, Father James actually knows (or claims to know, at least) who it is that’s threatening to kill him. This leads us to wonder what he knows and why he isn’t sharing that information with anyone else.
The rest of the film sees Father James wandering through a wide variety of subplots in the small Irish town he calls home. This serves two purposes. First, it shows a week in the life of this respected priest. Second, it presents us with a list of suspects, encouraging us to wonder who may eventually be our killer.
First and foremost is the case of Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who’s apparently been beaten by some man in her life. Yet Veronica has such a notorious sexual appetite that it’s anyone’s guess whether the beating was consensual or which man actually hit her. Though the two most likely culprits in that case are her husband (Jack Brennan, played by Chris O’Dowd in a rare dramatic turn) and her boyfriend (Simon, played by Isaac De Bankole).
There’s also Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a consummate asshole who fled from criminal charges when the economy tanked. He’s now living in an enormous mansion that’s been empty ever since his wife and kids (and even the maid!) left him. The other prominent dickweed is Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen), an atheist who somehow became a doctor even though he doesn’t seem to have a shred of human decency. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Father Leary (David Wilmot), a fellow priest with a disturbing lack of spine; Leo (Owen Sharpe), a flamboyantly gay man often seen in the company of Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon); and Milo Herlihy (Killian Scott), a young man who is so lonely and socially awkward that he’s thinking about joining the army just to legally kill people.
Moving on, not everyone in this movie is a potential suspect. Probably the least likely character to murder Father James is his daughter (played by Kelly Reilly, who’s always a pleasure to see onscreen). Fiona recently botched a suicide attempt, so she’s come up to see what spiritual/parental advice her Father can offer. We’ve also got M. Emmett Walsh playing a character known only as “The Writer,” providing Father James with some insights into aging and death. Then there’s Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), an Italian woman whose husband was killed in a car accident while they were vacationing in Ireland. Father James is called in to perform the Last Rites and console Teresa in her time of grieving.
Gleeson even gets a scene to act against his own son (prominent up-and-comer Domhnall Gleeson), who appears as an imprisoned serial killer/cannibal. Freddie Joyce claims to want forgiveness, though his sincerity is in question and it’s uncertain whether someone who’s committed so many awful crimes is even capable of receiving absolution. What makes it even worse is that there’s no capital punishment in Ireland, so Freddie can’t die for his crimes no matter how badly he may want to.
As for Father James himself, of course Brendan Gleeson plays him brilliantly. The guy has an outrageously underrated talent at playing so much passion and rage behind a stoic demeanor. The character goes through most of the film with an imperturbable calm, but Gleeson plays it in such a way that you can feel the emotional baggage, with a hint that anything could happen if and when the dam breaks.
What makes Father James an even stronger protagonist is that he wasn’t always a priest. The guy was married, he had a kid, his wife died, he picked up a crippling alcohol addiction, and a whole bunch of other stuff probably happened before he took his vows. And all of that long sad history is clearly visible in every grey hair on James’ ample beard. This means that even if James is devout in his faith, it’s plainly obvious that he’s spent enough time on the other side as well. When others express doubt in their faith, or even their complete lack of faith, James understands where they’re coming from completely. He also knows how to speak with people of all faiths, talking in common sense and tough love rather than platitudes.
The guy’s not perfect, but he’s a good man with a very good sense of what people need to hear, and his bullshit meter is perfectly on point. In short, Father James is a very effective protagonist and it’s clear to see why he’s such a revered reverend. That said, James has a nasty tendency to detach himself from his work. It’s a necessary step, he argues, to listen to confessionals week after week and still maintain a sense of self. Even so, staying detached often means that it’s much harder for James to empathize with his flock, and that comes back to bite him in a big way.
(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the film was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, who previously collaborated with Gleeson on an underappreciated little dramedy called The Guard. That film was quite good, but nothing on the level of McDonagh’s or Gleeson’s work here.)
Naturally, the character is made even stronger by the dialogue he has to work with. Though this may be a very heavy movie with a lot of dark and tragic issues, the comic relief is nicely dark as well. Pretty much every character in this movie can hold their own in a verbal throwdown. In particular, James has more than his share of blunt rejoinders and snarky comments, which helps make him even more endearing.
Speaking of dark, let’s talk about the visuals. Nearly every shot in this movie (aside from the dazzling panoramas of Irish countryside) uses black colors and dark shadows in a very striking way. The most prominent example is James himself, who always dresses in black flowing clothes from head to toe. It makes the character look more distinctive, especially since the black clothes often contrast sharply against the bright colors and lighting around him. Speaking of which, it’s worth noting that when the murderer finally shows up, he’s wearing white and Father James is wearing black. A clever and very effective reversal, that.
This brings me back to the various plotlines. The way the narrative stumbles from one unrelated storyline to another, you could almost be forgiven for thinking that the plot is rambling and nonexistent. But take a closer look at my descriptions of the different side characters and their subplots. Especially the latter half. You may notice that many of them focus quite heavily on themes regarding death, exploring the subject from different angles. Other characters have to grapple with their sins, temptations, imperfections, and the various consequences thereof.
It’s the ending that really ties it all together, implicitly encouraging the audience to think about what we leave behind. The film is all about how our actions, particularly our sins and what we do to repent for them (if anything), can leave a deceptively huge impact that lasts long after we’re gone. Then the movie goes a step further and argues that we focus too much on our sins, suggesting that virtues — particularly forgiveness — are highly underrated. So even a film as dark and heavy as this one goes out on a glimmer of hope.
Calvary is a powerful film. It takes on some heady issues in bold ways, completely unafraid to let the plot ramble as the characters find themselves before the ending ties it all together in a neat bow. The visuals are fantastic, the central mystery is presented with some novel twists, the actors (particularly Brendan Gleeson, of course) are extraordinary across the board, and they’re reading from a script that’s deliciously dark without being a morose drag.
It’s a movie that deals with death and religion in a daring and direct manner, yet it’s just funny enough to stay entertaining and made with enough intelligence to provoke an emotional reaction. This is absolutely a film to look for.