Brendan Gleeson is the perfect vessel for an angry god, that being John Michael McDonagh. The director’s gospel is Calvary, a fiery farce on Catholicism and the state of the church. Without the wholehearted Gleeson front and center, this could have been an irrevocably bitter, myopic thing, a heated hate-song about the faith in this day and age, but through the big and burdened performance of Gleeson we get a powerful prayer.
Calvary chronicles a week in the life of Irish priest Father James Lavelle. He’s an embattled soul. He was once married. His daughter (Kelly Reilly) is estranged, and recovering from addiction. He tends to his townsfolk, almost entirely of ill repute. In spite of Lavelle’s sleepy seaside locale, there’s fire and brimstone aplenty. The town’s butcher (Chris O’ Dowd) is beating his wife (Orla O’Rourke). The butcher’s wife is sleeping with the town’s mechanic (Isaach De Bankole). Local millionaire Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) clearly has skeletons in his closet of unknown quantities and begs for Lavelle’s attention through checks, urination, shotguns, and other forms of ostentation. The atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen) is a consistent thorn in Lavelle’s side. These are just a few of many in Lavell’s flock of black sheep.
There’s only so much one man of the cloth can take. Yet, Lavelle seems strong enough to take it. Lavelle, as much as he may seem like an aimless, ginger bear, is deep in thought, and feels for each and every member of his parish.
Yet, the main reason we see Lavelle interacting with all these souls is because of a startling threat. The good father, while taking confession, is informed that he’s going to be killed in seven days’ time – on a Sunday, for the utmost cruelty and irony. It would be retribution for the sins of a pedophilic earlier priest, and Lavelle, while not entirely free from damnation himself, surely doesn’t deserve this. Lavelle just happens to be a convenient target.
Lavelle is shaken. He’s not sure if he should give credence to the warning. He consults with his Bishop, but that brings little resolve or action. Lavelle can’t say who he thinks the aggressor is. Lavelle doesn’t exactly know how to proceed with this. Does he await his slaughter on the altar, or do something hastier to save himself?
What the father does do is begin making amends, trying to right the sins of his town by visiting everyone and confronting their guilt, faults, and deep secrets. At times he is gentle and honest. Other times, guns and alcohol and the generally pious nature of man gets in the way. Is there room for penance in a selfish place like this? Will Lavelle be crucified? Calvary’s exploits range from profound, to quaint, to outrageous. It’s like watching someone break up and make up with the Lord many times over.
As a religious moral quandary, Calvary is a thunderous bellow from McDonagh. It’s a film steeped in feisty Catholic guilt and resentment. Lavelle immerses himself in a gripping cast of characters, each more challenging to his church than the last. We see the father struggle with faith, since no one around him has any, and it’s Calvary’s most potent aspect. It’s like watching a Western (both metaphorically and very literally at times), with a stoic, silent type going it alone. Mixing pitch-black comedy with Irish melancholia, McDonagh aims to give a wildly divergent take on religion. It’s blunt, no doubt. When a film is named Calvary, as in the place where Jesus was crucified, there is little room for subtlety, just pomp. McDonagh’s film rings true, just too loudly.
What saves this from being an outright cynical sermon is Brendan Gleeson’s bravura performance. He’s a soft sound board for McDonagh, who’s writing and directing could’ve across like a man torching Bibles on a street corner. Long a second-tier actor, noticeable in side roles in things like Gangs of New York, or Braveheart (or even the Harry Potters, wow he’s been terrific in a lot of movies), Gleeson reunites with The Guard collaborator McDonagh for this modern requiem of faith. Gleeson presents a man torn, deep and true, fearful and fearless. He gives it is all carrying the cross of his people, carrying Calvary to its stunning revelations.