★★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother Martin are two Irish filmmakers delivering some of the darkest, funniest, most irreverent works coming out of the country today. Martin’s found great international success with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, while John’s deliriously foul-mouthed The Guard, though it failed to make an impact stateside, is the most successful independent Irish film of all time. Seriously, if you haven’t seen The Guard, get on that ASAP.
For the elder McDonagh’s sophomore effort, Calvary, he reunites with The Guard star Brendan Gleeson, who plays spiritually weary Father James, whose small rural parish on Ireland’s northwestern shores is made up of depraved locals. The film opens in the confessional, with an anonymous man in the booth telling James how he was brutally raped by a priest when he was a child. Now he’s seeking revenge against God the only way he sees how: by murdering an innocent man, Father James. “I’m going to kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong,” the man says. Now that’s how you grab an audience by the throat in the opening minutes.
The man gives Father James one week before it’s time to pay the piper. During this time, Father James doesn’t panic or flee the country. He stays put, struggling with how to handle the situation as he equally struggles to track down the man from the confession booth.
Once that initial conflict is established, Calvary settles in to face its inevitable third act. Father James’ week is spent tending to his dysfunctional flock, played by a talented ensemble. The butcher (Chris O’Dowd) is dealing with his adulterous wife, whose lover keeps beating her up. There’s also a disturbed surgeon (Aidan “Littlefinger” Gillen), a filthy-rich banker who took advantage of the economic crash (which hit Ireland hardest of all), and a surly American writer (the great M. Emmet Walsh) who’s knocking at death’s door.
Complicating things is the arrival of Father James’ daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who recently attempted suicide but made the “critical mistake” of cutting across instead of downwards. It’s her arrival that begins the film’s masterfully handled shift in tone from black comedy to somber drama. The humor and razor-sharp dialogue (a McDonagh trademark) remains throughout, but as the film drives along to its inevitable climax, there’s a melancholy that damn near consumes the audience.
But hey, that’s Catholicism, isn’t it? And through it all, Gleeson delivers a downright brilliant and moving performance. If this man doesn’t have an Oscar within five years, I’ll tear my eyes out. In Gleeson’s eyes, we see the lament of a lonesome man watching faith leave his small town. He juggles elegiac humor and drama in a heavenly manner as he’s forced to atone for the sins of his fellow priests and bear the weight of his religion’s negative marks on the world. And there are many.
It’s not a typical “keepin’ the faith” story, however. Calvary cuts much deeper than that, into the inborn need to justify our own existence. McDonagh has once again crafted a deeply nuanced, challenging film that takes on difficult themes with a raven-black sense of humor and sincerity like only an Irishman can. Part whodunnit, part meditation on forgiveness, Calvary stands tall as one of 2014’s masterpieces.