John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary
is not a film that shies away from big questions: about life and death,
faith and doubt, virtue and sin. It also doesn’t shy away from
eccentric personalities, with a long string of characters who are
essentially embodied quirks. But instead of delicious gallows humor, we
get a blunt instrument in cinematic form. Set in a seaside Irish town, Calvary
opens with a striking, squarely framed shot of Brendan Gleeson’s face:
tired eyes, deep creases, thick white beard splotched with patches of
carrot. The opening line, as Gleeson himself notes, is even more
startling: “I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old.” We’re in a
confessional booth, but the only face we see is that of Father James
(Gleeson) as his parishioner recounts childhood rape at the hands of a
priest—and then details his plans to kill James the following Sunday.
James knows who has threatened him, but we don’t, so as we meet a parade
of villagers—a boozing, abusive butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a stock-market
crook (Dylan Moran), an atheistic doctor (Aidan Gillen)—we ask who it
is. Gleeson, a bear of an actor, can balance dark comedy and compassion,
and he bleeds contempt for the Catholic church’s complacency. But
McDonagh—unlike his brother Martin, a playwright and the director of In Bruges—is
less assured when it comes to juggling these instincts, making for a
lumbering slog to a not-so-surprising reveal.
Critic’s Grade: B-
SEE IT: Calvary is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.