So I just saw Brendan Gleeson's latest movie, Calvary, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, the brother of one of my favorite playwrights, Martin McDonagh. Some spoilers (not too many) after the jump, but if you're up for some quirky and really dark Irishness, it's well worth a watch.

This part isn't too much of a spoiler, as it happens within about ten seconds of the lights going down: the movie begins with Gleeson's Father James beginning a confessional session and immediately being told by the person on the other side of the booth that he had been raped by a priest as a child, and since the priest is now dead (and killing a guilty priest would be pretty well ignored and/or applauded anyway), he's going to kill Father James in a week's time, specifically because he's an innocent man—the Church has preyed on innocents for years,* so it's only fitting that one of their innocents be taken, and besides, that will get people's attention.

[*-Editor's note: The "victim lashing out against the Church" story, for me, takes on added weight when set in Ireland, as the crimes of the Church in Ireland are staggeringly evil, even in comparison to those committed in places like the US.]

Rather than go to the police, Father James tells his superior, then goes about the business of being a small-town Irish priest with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head—he knows the person who has said he will kill him, but he won't divulge the name.


The "going about the business" thing is where the movie lags a bit for me. McDonagh works in as many "quirky small-town folk" stereotypes as possible. Here's the rich man who mocks Father James by throwing his wealth in his face. And here's the town's loose woman, flirting with him before running off on her next conquest. And here's the atheist doctor, who, as the reviewer on Fresh Air rightly points out, announces his two-dimensionality by saying, "And here is the atheistic doctor," or something like that. And Emmet Walsh, because why not?

The performances of these folks are mostly fine—especially Killian Scott as a cartoonishly awkward young man who has a chilling scene in which he tells Father James that he wants to join the army because his lack of success with women makes him want to kill someone, and being in the military would allow him to murder with impunity—but there are just too many of them, which means that most of them don't get treated with sufficient depth. They come on screen, mock the priest for one reason or another, and then they're gone. If James was a Job character—and I don't think he fully is, although there are some similarities—Job's callous friends would be played by a bunch of guys who shout, "Hey, you prick" and then wander off.


There's a line in the movie when Father James replies to a complaint by calling it "cheap cynicism," and I think that could be applied to some of the side characters. This is clearly a movie of its time, when the Church's moral authority is pretty much nonexistent and people are rightly skeptical of it (one very short, yet very affecting scene finds Father James making small talk with a girl in her early teens who's visiting the town on holiday, only to have her father screech up in the car, tell him to fuck off because he thinks James is up to no good, and drive off), but the reasons for their mockery and rejection aren't explicitly stated nearly enough. The townspeople might well reject James and his church, but it often comes across as, well, cheap cynicism. I couldn't help but think that Martin McDonagh would have handled the story better.

With that said, you should still see this movie, if only for Brendan Gleeson (one of my favorite character actors), who is in fine form as a fundamentally good and unsentimental, if weary, priest. As mentioned, Killian Scott also does a good job of taking someone who could easily be a throwaway loser and turning him into something much more sinister (the movie was shot long before Isla Vista, but it's impossible not to think of it when watching him). And Kelly Reilly is very good as Father James's daughter (he entered the priesthood after his wife died), a woman with her own serious mental health issues.


McDonagh's handling of the background characters falters at times, and some shots make it seem like he's trying too hard to make a movie that's beautiful as well as gritty (and the scenery is beautiful), but I'd check it out.