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.