A few years ago, the Irish actor Brendan Gleeson found himself with a plum role as one of two hitmen (the other was Colin Farrell) in the dark comedy In Bruges, which was written and directed by then-first-timer Martin McDonagh. McDonagh went on to write and direct the even darker comedy Seven Psychopaths, taking Farrell with him. Oddly, Gleeson went on to work with McDonaghs brother John, on his first film, the comic thriller The Guard. Now Gleeson is starring (without Farrell), in Johns second film, a drama with very little comedy, Calvary.
Gleeson plays Father James, a priest in a small Irish town who, during an uncomfortable opening scene confession, is told by a parishioner that because he was long ago a victim of a pedophile priest, hes going to take out his pent-up frustrations on Father James. That, in fact, hes going to kill him next Sunday ... on the beach.
What gets this film cooking from the start is that although its obvious that the priest knows who the man is, audiences only get to hear the mans voice, as the camera stays trained, in close-up, on Father James.
Whats a good priest to do? Just go on being a good priest, trying his best to take care of his flock. Father James is living with a difficult past. He was married and widowed before joining the priesthood, and his unhappy, foulmouthed, adult daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), fresh from a failed suicide attempt, is coming for a visit. Theyre not exactly estranged, but they havent seen each other for a while.
Thats OK. Father James has been busy. Hes been dealing with Jack and Veronica (Chris ODowd and Orla ORourke), and wondering if Jack has been hitting her again. It would be odd if he was, since Jack doesnt seem to mind that Veronica is quite blatantly having an affair with Simon (Isaach De Bankol). Simon, for the record, is equally blatant about his dislike for Father James. The priest is also dealing with his wealthy braggart of a neighbor Michael (Dylan Moran).
Hold on, lets not forget about Father James distant visits he can only get there by boat to an elderly writer (M. Emmet Walsh) who might be thinking about suicide, since he asks the priest if he can get him a Walther PPK (James Bonds pistol of choice). And then theres the priests extremely amoral friend Frank (Aiden Gillen, who Game of Thrones fans know as Littlefinger), who is also the town doctor.
Not enough? OK, there are the priests visits to a nearby prison, where he talks with the serial killer Freddie (Gleesons real-life son Domhnall), a former student of his whos accused of murdering a young woman, then eating her.
Heck of a town, dont you think? Plenty of sinners. The priests faith is regularly being tested by people whose faiths are regularly being tested, although it appears that some of them dont really give a damn about their behavior. The one thing pretty much all of the townsfolk have in common is that they want a piece of Father James; they want to talk with him about everything from sexual problems to financial matters. Gleeson give us a complicated portrait of a priest who tries to remain the good man he knows he is, but ends up ranging from being concerned with people to being annoyed by them.
Theres so much going on here, so many different situations to deal with, its very easy to forget about the opening scene and the death threat. But writer-director McDonagh likely doesnt want us to forget, as he regularly has the name of the day flash across the screen: MONDAY, THURSDAY, as the story gets closer to SUNDAY, and the promised event on the beach. In some ways that ticking clock effect is distracting; in others it builds the tension.
Fortunately this isnt all an exercise in doom and gloom. There are a couple of long peaceful walks and talks between Father James and his daughter, during which revelations about each of them are traded back and forth; theres some light comic, if unnerving delivery of dialogue from both ODowds Jack and Gillens Frank; and its always a treat to see and listen to M. Emmet Walsh, whose voice and visage continue to grow craggier.
Then Sunday arrives, as does a meet-up on a beach, along with an unsettling ending that will leave viewers with questions about what could have/should have happened. Fortunately, those final scenes are more satisfying, dramatically, than they sound.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh
With Brendan Gleeson, Chris ODowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen
Rated R

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.