Ireland. Directed by John Michael McDonough. Starring Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd. 102 minutes.
The penitent man has an opening line so striking even the priest expresses being impressed with it: “I was seven years old when I first tasted semen.” The abuser, it turns out, was himself a man of the cloth, now long dead. Denied a chance at revenge, the penitent man will instead kill a good priest, an innocent priest, which would be more discomfiting for the Church than if he were to kill a bad priest. The victim will be the man on the other side of the lattice, who has seven days to put his affairs in order. “Killin’ a priest on a Sunday?” he concludes. “That’ll be a good one.”
The priest is Father James (Brendan Gleeson). The penitent man isn’t revealed to the audience until the film’s end, but there’s no lack of suspects in his parish. A dull butcher (Chris O’Dowd, The IT Crowd) married to an adulterous woman (Orla O’Rourke); an incompetent fellow priest (David Wilmot); a surly mechanic (Isaach de Bankolé); an atheistic surgeon (Aidan Gillen, Game of Thrones); an unhappy millionaire (Dylan Moran, Black Books); an aged writer (M. Emmet Walsh); a down-on-his-luck barkeep (Pat Shortt). But Calvary isn’t much of a whodunit: Father James knows who made the threat, even if the viewer doesn’t.
Instead what writer/director John Michael McDonagh delivers is a meditation on death. It is, of course, a comic one: a film with lines such as “I think she’s bipolar, or lactose intolerant…one of the two” and “I feel I’ve exhausted all the possibilities of pornography,” which contains a conversation between two priests on the subject of felching and the sight of a man pissing on an expensive painting by an Old Master has earned the right to be classified as a comedy. But if it’s a comedy, it’s a singularly melancholy one. The subject of death hangs over Father James like a shroud over what might be the last week of his life. He entertains his daughter (Kelly Reilly), visiting from London after a failed suicide attempt; he gives the last rites to a foreigner on holiday, mortally wounded in an auto accident; he visits a former pupil (Gleeson’s own son Domhnall), imprisoned for serial murder.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Bob Dylan once sang that “he not busy being born is busy dying” and I think McDonagh would agree with that sentiment.
So more than anything else, Calvary is a character piece and you need a great cast to pull that off. Boy howdy, does McDonagh ever get one. Casting O’Dowd as a bumbling, clueless fool, Gillan as a charismatic but slightly creepy charmer harboring deep-seated anger, and Moran as a haughty misanthrope may seem too obvious, considering the actors’ signature roles, but the film refuses to brook any discussion that they are any less than perfect for their parts. O’Rourke exposes the pain behind her character’s promiscuity. Reilly perfectly embodies every young woman (and man) who consistently makes poor choices despite knowing better. Killan Scott and Owen Sharpe, in minor roles, steal every scene they appear in. Looming over all of them as if he’s part of the landscape, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James, who, if not exactly beatific, then at least consistently determined to preserve his faith in God and man, even when he doesn’t understand the former and the latter disappoints him.
The last performance comes from the coastal Irish landscape, the perfect reflection of its people: majestic and beautiful, yet overcast and violent. It’s the last place on Earth you’d expect to find a thriving community of surfers, thanks in part to the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill.
Calvary is a remarkable examination of humanity, its nature and its great obsessions, sex and death. A stunning work of truth and beauty, it stands amongst the very best films of 2014.