It takes a moment. As "Calvary" opens, a small-town Irish priest sits to hear a confession. A few beats have likely come and gone before a viewer realizes that the image isn't cutting away, that the audience is being asked to watch a man listen. It's unusual but also unexpectedly riveting.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, "Calvary" reveals itself over and over to be a movie of such surprises, a serious-minded, lightly comedic rumination on life, death, faith and community. In its steady assemblage of details over an incidental, episodic structure it accrues a building sense of moral gravity.
That the priest is played by an actor with the natural, compelling presence of
McDonagh's previous film,
Often dressed in an anachronistic cassock and with a rather astonishing sweep of leonine hair, Gleeson cuts an imposing and authoritative figure, like something from a rough-edged spaghetti western dropped on the dramatic west coast of Ireland.The role provides a fantastic showcase for the actor, as he captures the inner conflict and outward placidity of the character. Written with him in mind, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the part.
McDonagh often pulls tension from the postcard imagery of the settings, such as when Father James and his daughter Fiona (
The town has an assorted cast of characters — small-town eccentrics of various stripes — many of whom become possible suspects, played by actors including
McDonagh is the older brother of playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, writer-director of the dark thriller
As the end credits roll on "Calvary" there is a series of images of the spaces from the film devoid of people — empty tables and open tableaux. It gives the life-or-death decisions of the movie a whole new framing, the world existing on after the travails of the story.
The film is then not so much a meditation but a reverie, a swirl of emotions and ideas, managing to be both calmly reflective and skittishly anxious at the same time. "Calvary" is a serious comedy, a funny drama, a ruminative film about life and a lively film about death. From the jolting simplicity of the opening scene right through those final shots, "Calvary" is never quite the film you expect it to be. It sneaks up on you.
MPAA rating: R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes