Sligo, Ireland. In the confessional, Father James (Gleeson) learns that one of his congregation, who was abused by another priest, intends to kill him in a week’s time. The priest is visited by his daughter (Reilly), who has recently attempted suicide, and deals with a range of locals who have differing reasons to hate the Catholic Church.
With The Guard, writer-director John Michael McDonagh and character actor-star Brendan Gleeson created a classic Irish comedy-drama. This thematic follow-up darkens the tone considerably. As before, there’s a sense that McDonagh’s twin inspirations are Father Ted and Abel Ferrara, but here the anguish is more raw and traditional whimsy struggles to survive in a country many feel has been literally and figuratively raped by generations of bad priests and now further abused by unethical financiers and corrupt politicians. There are sweet and funny moments, but an undercurrent of anger storms throughout. Quirky character business often segues into spiritually terrifying material. Every pub debate gets vicious and the weather is always foul.
Brendan Gleeson’s Father James is a widower who has come to the church late in life, at what we see is a cost to his grown-up daughter (Kelly Reilly). A former heavy drinker and brawler, he struggles with his own demons even as he takes the brunt of everyone else’s wrath. The stunning confessional scene which begins the film introduces a self-aware streak as Father James admits that the unrepentant penitent’s attention-getting line (“I was seven years old when I first tasted semen”) is a hell of an opening. Though it’s a mystery to the audience which of James’ circle of acquaintances is threatening him, he confides early on that he thinks he knows his would-be killer’s identity. However, the general air of hostility and an escalating campaign against the institution of the church and the person of the priest suggests James isn’t being targeted simply by one of his parishioners. The character eventually outed as the vengeance-seeking abuse victim (it’ll be less of a mystery when next year’s supporting actor nominations are announced) denies one specific act of terror, leaving a talking-point puzzle destined to be an IMDb message-board thread without end.
As in The Guard, McDonagh’s writing is so strong that actors who usually star are willing to sign on for only a couple of scenes or even a few smart lines. This is even more Gleeson’s film, but is studded with superb work from Reilly as the damaged yet loyal daughter, Aidan Gillen as a venomous atheist coroner (his nastiest speech will haunt you), Chris O’Dowd as a butcher relieved that his vamp wife has taken up with a mechanic, Dylan Moran as a self-hating banker and M. Emmet Walsh as a grumbling old writer. Gleeson’s priest shambles from scene to scene, taking a mental beating as he tries to live up to an ideal no-one else — least of all his trendy new church colleagues — believes in anymore. In a fine point of doctrine, his refusal to bring the authorities in or duck out of a date with a would-be killer could even be classed as a passive suicide, though he procures a gun which figures in several sub-plot threads.
It’s more uncomfortable than The Guard, and you probably need to be an Irish Catholic to fully engage with its arguments. However, even in its bleakest moments, it retains a comic, pointed touch.
On the strength of only two films, McDonagh and Gleeson are a director/star team on a par with Ford/Wayne, Fellini/Mastroianni or Scorsese/De Niro. Calvary is gripping, moving, funny and troubling, down to an uncompromising yet uncynical finish.