2:42 AM PST 1/20/2014 by David Rooney
John Michael McDonagh’s 2011 debut, The Guard, provided the wonderful Brendan Gleeson with a vehicle for some of his best screen work, playing an Irish West Country cop unencumbered by diplomacy skills. But the follow-up collaboration of the writer-director and lead actor is in a whole different league. Gleeson’s performance as a man of profound integrity suffering for the sins of others is the lynchpin of this immensely powerful drama, enriched by spiky black comedy but also by its resonant contemplation of faith and forgiveness. Representing a considerable leap in thematic scope and craft for McDonagh, Calvary deserves to reach the widest possible audience.
As with the work of McDonagh's younger brother, the playwright, screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh, an inherent irreverence is essential to the work. But don’t let the gags, the ripe profanity and the wicked comic characterizations fool you. The director of Calvary appears utterly serious about exploring the uses and abuses of spirituality in a world of toxic disillusionment and cynicism.
Set along the rocky cliffs of County Sligo, the film begins in the intimacy of a Catholic Church confessional box. Father James (Gleeson) listens as the voice on the opposite side of the covered window recounts being sexually abused by a clergyman from the age of seven. The unseen parishioner informs the priest that he’s giving him a week to make his peace with God and the world, arranging a Sunday meeting on the beach where he intends to kill him. Since the man who molested him died long ago, he reasons that the death of an innocent priest will make more of a statement.
That would appear to be an irreversibly grim departure point for a film. But McDonagh and the actors navigate supple shifts between mordant humor and emotionally complex drama throughout much of Calvary.
Father James appears to have recognized the voice, and while he seeks counsel from the Bishop (David McSavage), he declines to name his prospective murderer, even later when a violent warning suggests the seriousness of the threat. Instead, in what amounts to an anticipatory whodunit that’s equal parts Agatha Christie and Stations of the Cross, he makes his regular parish rounds.
He meets with the cuckolded local butcher (Chris O’Dowd), his tarty wife (Orla O’Rourke) and her occasional lover (Isaach de Bankole). Further encounters follow with a semi-reclusive American writer (M. Emmet Walsh), a smug financier (Dylan Moran) and an atheistic, coke-snorting doctor (Aiden Gillen). There’s also the police inspector (Gary Lydon) and the cop’s regular rent boy (Owen Sharpe).
McDonagh’s crackling dialogue makes the priest’s exchanges with the townsfolk so frequently hilarious that you don’t really notice the sobering shift that has taken place. Each of the parishioners goes out of his or her way to challenge Father James’ convictions. Whether generalized or personal, their goading remarks seem designed to remind him that the Catholic Church as an institution is at best obsolete, at worst morally broken, and that his religious compassion can do little to fix anyone’s messy lives.
Absorbing the constant criticism with forbearance and only rarely rising to the bait, James is a firmly centered man, and Gleeson etches a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, experience and hard-won serenity into the ruddy face behind his snowy beard, even if he's not without acknowledged flaws. “You’re just a little too sharp for this parish,” the butcher’s wife tells him. And it’s true, his worldly intelligence and gentle philosophical bent stick out, especially next to the lightweight younger priest (David Wilmot).
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