Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Marie-Josée Croze
A preist struggling with his faith and desperate for purpose in the murk of fog-blanketed, 21st century Ireland receives a death threat from an abused alter boy from his past. He has one week and then will be gunned down at the beach, he is told, so he’s got just enough time to get his affairs in order. Although Brendan Gleeson‘s Father James Lavelle may have never touched a fly, much less an alter boy, that’s exactly why this abusee wants to strike out at him, “I want to hurt someone good. Someone who has never hurt anyone.” With exact knowledge of who this man is, Father James chooses not to turn him in, instead he’ll try to change the man. While this selfless choice might inevitably lead to his demise, it’s the only righteous path that his Catholic worldview and personal pathos allow for.
Decidedly more serious and bleak than his debut effort, the well-received The Guard, John Michael McDonagh treads in a whole new direction, though remaining in the lavish playground of his native Ireland. While The Guard allowed Gleeson a chance to flex his comedic muscles playing a racist, half-witted police officer with a semi-solid set of morals, Calvary gives him ample room to breathe as a dramatist.
Knowing he only has seven days to live, we see Father James amble through the five stages of grief and Gleeson is rapturous through it all. At first, he goes about his daily life as if nothing has changed, humming from the threat but keeping it wrangled to the back of his mind. Soon, he’ll begin to strike out at those close to him, embodying the anger of a man watching his life tick away. Onto bargaining – he cuts deals with local elite alongside God – depression – his ancient history with the bottle begins to resurface – and finally the cool serenity of acceptance.
Offering Gleeson a chance to shift masks like a Jungian headcase, Calvary is a showcase of acting prowess but also has a rich beating heart in the rich texture of landscape and the girth of questionable characters that surround Father James’ final days. He may know the identity of his to-be killer but that’s never a fact we’re privy to. As we’re watching, each character, big and small, seems to carry an ulterior motive and McDonagh cranks the suspicion so high that we wouldn’t blink if the perp was Father’s James own daughter (Kelly Reilly).
Though sundry moments of muted comic relief courtesy of the increasingly reliable Chris O’Dowd seek to remind us that even in tragedy, life carries on, Calvary is an intrepid and deeply somber drama, soaring from Gleeson’s dynamic performance. With the capacity to leave us hanging our heads in despair, McDonagh looks past the low hanging fruit and aims for something infinitely more powerful and soulfully infectious, a modern stance on what it truly means to sacrifice.