Brendan Gleeson works best when he’s playing an Irishman. I say this because I’ve seen a few of his Irish roles and a few of his Hollywood roles, and the Irish ones light him up. He was good in Mission: Impossible II (2000) as a cracked biomedical millionaire. Delightfully crazy as a one-eyed professor in the Harry Potter films. Domineering if fruitless in Troy (2004). But in movies like In Bruges (2008) and The Guard (2011), he is transformed. He becomes tactile, loosely empathetic, usually in roles that are tragic.
In Calvary, the latest film by John Michael McDonagh (his brother is Martin McDonagh, writer and director of In Bruges), Gleeson plays an Irish priest, Father James. A good one. His parish is a seaside hamlet in the northwest of Ireland; everyone knows everyone, and everyone goes to church. In this church, confessions are made and sins are committed. A lot of confessions. A lot of sins. Father James’ biggest test is absorbing all he hears and sees with a balanced heart, which is mighty difficult to do when the sins, by Catholic law, are grave and committed by friends. The local butcher, Jack (Chris O’Dowd), has left his wife in the arms of an African immigrant (Isaach de Bankolé), and the immigrant might be abusing her. He says sometimes she asks for it. I say okay. The local surgeon, Frank (Aiden Gillen), is an atheist with a tongue sharper than his scalpel. The bartender, though not openly atheist, also sees no salvation in God. There’s a young man named Milo (Killian Scott), who has grown restless with the sexual lassitude of the local female population. He doesn’t get any sex, so he has given himself two options: Suicide or army enlistment. “Those are pretty drastic choices either way”, Father James remarks. The rich curmudgeon, played by Dylan Moran, lives alone in his mansion, still pristinely maintained. He gets his kicks from parading his wealth around, an act that could be concealing troubling inner demons. The local inspector (Gary Lydon) is getting serviced from behind by a rowdy biker boy who seems borrowed from Scorpio Rising (1963). And a young lad (Domhnall Gleeson) is in prison for murder.
They test the resilience and fortitude of Father James’ faith. But most trying is a death threat that comes as the movie opens. Father James hears the confession of an anonymous sinner, only there’s no sin to confess. The man claims to have been raped by a priest when he was 7 and vows vengeance now by threatening to kill Father James in a week (he’s courteous enough to give the priest time to make peace with God). But Father James is innocent! The man’s explanation is pithy: Why kill a bad priest when a good one would make better headlines?
This premise would have made a lesser film about the death threat and about the man who made it, but McDonagh cleverly shoves the angle to the background and leaves it till the end to make way for philosophical conversations and strong character development. Father James has a daughter from a pre-ordination marriage. Her name is Fiona (Kelly Reilly), and she presents her father with another sin: Suicide. She arrives at the story with bandaged wrists. A troubling ex-boyfriend, she says. She comes to the town for a short visit from London. He doesn’t tell her about the death threat; this could be the last time she sees him.
Calvary is all about Father James. He is at the core of every scene, lending a generous ear to overwhelming problems and fighting against himself not to pass judgement. The way McDonagh has structured his screenplay almost borders on fantastical farce. It might occur to you that so many sins stemming from such a small town, all at the same time, seems odd. Indeed, it occurred to me. But there is an air of whimsy about the screenplay. The residents of the town provide allegorical challenges for Father James. The death threat tackles an issue that has wiggled its way into the press of late, but doesn’t condescend to it. Maybe it’s all in Gleeson’s performance, which is ripe with sardonic civility and an uneasy calm. When he approaches the inspector for a gun and the inspector thinks he needs it to put down his dog, watch the way Father James answers the inspector’s question without actually answering it. Maybe he knows, ever since receiving the death threat, that there’s no getting out of it, and the whole of Calvary is his long and arduous journey to the end. To Calvary.
Best Moment | Some of Gleeson’s lines are pure gold.
Worst Moment | Nope.