Christians can immediately identify the title “Calvary” as designating the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Non-Christians are likelier to misread it and have thoughts of bugles and soldiers on horseback and John Ford films. Banish those thoughts from your mind.
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s first feature was the deftly entertaining “The Guard” (2011), with Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle. Gleeson returns for McDonagh’s new film, which is gripping and engaging, but not exactly entertaining. Despite some very clever dialogue, “Calvary” is deep-dish all the way.
As the movie starts, we hear an off-camera voice in the confessional say, “I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old.”
“A startling opening line,” says Father James (Gleeson), a priest in a rural Irish village, thus acknowledging what everyone in the audience is thinking. In less than three minutes, the man behind the anonymous voice informs Father James that he will kill him the following Sunday.
Father James never molested this man or anyone else. The original culprit is long dead. James will be his stand-in for the angry victim’s revenge against the church — and possibly against God, life and the human race — even though he acknowledges that James is a good man. Killing a bad priest is nothing, he asserts; killing a good priest, well, that’s something.
Whether or not James knows the man’s identity, the audience doesn’t; and for the next hour and a half, we meet an array of locals, each of whom seems like a possible candidate.
We’re pretty sure it’s not the ancient writer (M. Emmet Walsh) or police inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon, reprising his character from “The Guard”). But it could be the fat cat (Dylan Moran) who gloats over his participation in the country’s recent financial crisis. Or the butcher (Chris O’Dowd), who is humiliated by his wife’s open affair with a garage mechanic (Isaach de Bankole). Or the affectless, Asperger-ish Milo (Killian Scott). Or the atheistic doctor, who is so cynical he stops to complain about himself: “The cynical, atheistic doctor ... now there’s a cliched character.”
They all feel wronged in one way or another and rightly cite the Church’s complicity with their plights.
Despite the whodunit — or whosegonnadoit — setup, the answer is essentially irrelevant, and its eventual revelation of only passing importance. Consider it a McGuffin along the lines of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” It’s a catalyst for Father James to explore the uncomfortable realities beneath the town’s surface. And it draws us along in his internal struggles with faith, guilt, the sensation of guilt, grief, responsibility, God, good, evil and the meaning of life.
Of course, while this is going on, he has to continue with his job and also do his awkward best to help his daughter (Kelly Reilly) — he didn’t join the priesthood until after the death of his wife — who is recovering from a failed suicide attempt.
An ad campaign for Levy’s rye bread used to proclaim, “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy’s!” Likewise, you don’t have to be Catholic (or any form of Christian at all) to appreciate “Calvary.” McDonagh’s writing and direction are spot on, but it’s impossible to overstate Gleeson’s contribution. There’s no surprise in that: He’s long been versatile in supporting parts and brilliant in his occasional starring roles. Despite everyone else’s fine work, this is totally his film. If there’s a god, he’ll get an Oscar; if no, he’ll have a gripe along with the others.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).