Gleeson (left) imbues his character with soulful humanity and sardonic wit.
Named after the hill where Jesus was crucified, Calvary makes its intentions clear from the start. Father James (Brendan Gleeson) sits in the confessional of his church in a rural Irish town. An unseen man arrives and shares a horrible secret: He was sexually molested by a Catholic priest for five years, starting when he was 7 years old. That priest is long dead, so the vengeful man has decided to kill Father James instead. Targeting an innocent clergyman will have a bigger impact.
Hoping to identify the potential murderer, Father James examines his flock of parishioners. There's the cynical doctor, the bitter harlot, the rich alcoholic, the creepily sullen youth and the dimwitted butcher, and that's just for starters. These individuals are composite archetypes, not true characters. They flaunt their sins in front of Father James, most of the time to his face.
Early on, Father James reveals that he knows who the would-be killer is, but this knowledge alone won't protect him. He becomes increasingly unnerved as his demise looms closer. Meanwhile, the audience remains ignorant of the avenger's identity, parsing clues from red herrings.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), Calvary is a darkly hilarious and deeply thoughtful update on the Passion Play. It's a bit like Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, re-imagined by Sam Peckinpah. The dialogue cleverly bumps up against the fourth wall, and the religious and moral conflicts are played out with precision.
Though the script is well crafted, Gleeson's performance carries the film. Father James is the merciful center of a community filled with willfully rotten people. Gleeson imbues his character with soulful humanity and sardonic wit that works with the movie's pitch-black humor. He makes Calvary the kind of film that can worm its way into your psyche and stay there for a long time.