We open on a close-up of Father James (Brendan Gleeson) as he 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 kid, a traumatic experience that happened more than once. He then tells James that he’s going to kill him this coming Sunday. James’s 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 molesting anyone. But it doesn’t matter. The man has made his mind up. He hates James, he hates what he represents, the role he holds in the community. The position of a priest is one of great power, influence and especially trust. Whoever the other priest was he violated that trust between him and the man in the confessional. And now that man wants to kill James, for retribution. It’s inevitable
So begins “Calvary,” John Michael McDonagh’s—brother of fellow filmmaker Martin McDonagh-- somber and skillfully made new picture. Inevitability seems to be a core theme that runs throughout the movie. As much as we may try to prevent certain things from happening, sometimes they simply can’t be stopped. This is only part of the massive cloud of melancholy that hangs over McDonagh’s film. 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. Additionally, the fact that the movie follows James in the days leading up to bloody Sunday gives “Calvary” a “countdown to judgment day” feel. The impending doom slowly closes in on James, as well as on the viewer.
The screenplay—also by McDonagh—is essentially a series of one on one conversation between James and various members of his flock (it’s a very stagey picture). Not surprisingly, a majority of them have problems. To name a few, 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. James gives advice and usually they don’t listen; they don’t seem to want to listen. Instead they use the opportunity to give James their pessimistic take on the topics of faith, religion and life in general. Perhaps they don’t want help; perhaps they don’t want to change.
“Calvary” is very much a writer’s movie; since it’s mainly dialogue driven it gives all of the characters a chance to go on a monologue or diatribe about some aspect of life. Just about everyone has a profound insight of some kind, even the lowly hospital worker or the gay prostitute. Everyone gets to be a pseudo-philosopher. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, as I enjoy watching people spout intelligent dialogue but some of the conversations and diatribes don’t really go anywhere and as the movie goes on they all seem to feed into same idea--that there’s no point to anything—over and over. The nihilism and utter hopelessness can get slightly fatiguing.
At the center of this dark drama is Gleeson’s performance. If it wasn’t already clear—and really, I don’t know how it wouldn’t be—Gleeson is a great actor and his performance in “Calvary” easily ranks among his best, most complex. It’s one of great-understated power. As a priest he has to keep a calm demeanor, even if he’s being patronized or insulted by members of the town, but he never comes off wholly passive. He asks questions like a police interrogator, he can be sensitive and brutally honest. Gleeson never overacts. As the week goes on, there are times when James breaks his calm manner, getting drunk and snapping at people. Even shooting a gun in the tavern. But considering what he’s going through it feels deserved and Gleeson doesn’t do more than what’s needed.
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 (has “known him for a long time”) and yet doesn’t do anything about it. Doesn’t choose to go the police. Maybe he doesn’t totally believe the threat, or maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe he’s ready for it. Even if he did go to the police it wouldn’t fix things in the long run; the man would still hold a vendetta against him and try at a future time to carry out the murder. So clearly there’s a part of him that’s given up, or become content (again, it’s inevitable) and yet he continues to do his job. He continues to try and help people the best way he can, even if they don’t want it.
Besides the overwhelming sense of hopelessness, the other key theme pulsing through “Calvary” is that of loneliness and James appears to be the loneliest character of all. Everybody in town has nothing but good things to say about him yet often times they seem like they don’t mean it, and are masking their true feelings about him instead. While in the local pub one night someone sets the church on fire, James asks, “why didn’t anyone see?” It’s a question that sadly doesn’t get an answer. Despite his important position in the community, James is very much alone.
“Calvary” is an impressive film, featuring a phenomenal lead performance, but it’s also awfully, awfully bleak. This along with the talky nature and deliberate pace will not interest the general audience. However, even I—who like talky, deliberate and bleak cinema—will find it difficult to watch it on repeat viewings. It’s one of those well-made intelligent movies that I will most likely never watch again.