Director: John Michael McDonagh
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran
Calvary begins rather abruptly with Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) being threatened during a confession. An unseen man tells Lavelle of the abuse he suffered from another priest when he was seven years old, and vows to murder him in seven days to send a message. The film follows Lavelle as he struggles to process the threat against him and still provide guidance to his weak, cynical, and troubled parishioners.
The film carries a very bleak, ominous tone that’s punctuated by the acerbic wit of its many stars. Gleeson gives an incredible performance as the beleaguered priest beset on all sides by doubt, indifference, or thinly-veiled hostility. Among the varied members of his troubled flock are his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly) from a former life, an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen), and a local butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who may be abusing his adulterous wife.
The writer and director John Michael McDonagh (who also directed Gleeson in the 2011 dark comedy The Guard) touches upon many complex issues in his exploration of how we cope with the often terrible truths lurking just beneath the surface. Indeed, the theme permeates almost every aspect of the film–from the lingering mystery of the potential murderer’s identity to the dreary skies that loom over the otherwise beautiful Irish countryside. Emotions roil just underneath Gleeson’s stoic face as he clings to his faith and his calling, even as every interaction with his parishioners is undercut with indifference or resentment.
Calvary is an intensely dark but meditative film that doesn’t offer many answers, but nevertheless confronts the viewer with vast spectrum of ugly truths we so often try to avoid. Some might be put off by the pacing, as large portions of the film follow Lavelle through a seemingly endless parade of tangentially related encounters with his various parishioners, but I found to be well grounded by the undercurrent of suspense leading up to Lavelle’s fate. Beautifully shot, darkly comic, and engaging throughout, Calvary sits in stark but welcome contrast to the usual empty blockbuster fare.