Calvary: A priest contemplates sacrifice

August 29, 2014

Grade: 85
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, David Wilmot, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankole, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josee Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, Pat Shortt, Orla O’Rourke
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Rating: R, for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use
Running Time: 100 minutes

By Dan Lybarger for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

As the title implies, Calvary is about making the ultimate sacrifice for one’s convictions. In the case of a priest named Father James (Brendan Gleeson), he wanders into the confessional to discover that he has arbitrarily been selected to be a sacrificial lamb.


On the other side of the wall, an unseen voice recounts being the victim of horrific sexual abuse from one of Father James’ long deceased peers. The clergyman suggests counseling and reporting his predecessor to the authorities, but the man on the other end of the conversation isn’t looking for consolation of conventional justice.

Even though Father James has had nothing to do with his suffering, the unseen man tells him that in a week’s time, he’ll meet the priest on the beach and kill him.

After this engrossingly grim opening, writer-director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard) introduces Father James’ flock, who live in a small Irish seaside town. The threat of a homicidal parishioner is certainly unsettling, but being an Irish priest isn’t what it used to be, either.

Thanks to scandals like the one his potential killer experienced, people no longer look at Father James and his ilk with automatic respect. Throughout his dealings with a divorcee (Orla O’Rourke), a creepy butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a skeptical doctor (Aidan Gillen), an ex-pat American writer (M. Emmet Walsh), a cynical immigrant (Isaach De Bankole) and his own estranged daughter (Kelly Reilly), Father James wonders whether he can reach the people he has been charged with helping.

McDonagh offers a bleak assessment about Ireland’s current sociopolitical situation. The only person who’s less beloved than the struggling priest is a wealthy financier (Dylan Moran) who made a fortune off of deals that ended up sinking the nation’s banks. Father James is about the only person left who will listen to him.

Thankfully, he frequently injects the film with a droll, gallows humor that keeps it from being a polemic. Unlike the other priests in the area, Father James is observant enough to know real threats from phony ones. When a colleague makes an Islamophobic remark about a seemingly imminent attack, Father James informs him that his parish of Sligo isn’t high on Al Qaeda’s target list.

McDonagh also gives some of the Emerald Isle’s better thespians a chance to really stretch their acting muscles. Gleeson effortlessly demonstrates that being upright and sinless are two very different things. Putting on the collar, which he did after his wife died, hasn’t removed some of the spiritual struggles he had before.

Calvary also demonstrates that O’Dowd is a far more accomplished thespian than his big screen credits might imply. In Bridesmaids and The Sapphires, he played a likable goofball. Here he’s also a bit of a mess, but he’s also convincingly menacing.

Calvary sometimes veers off into tangents before returning to the plot. This is both a blessing and a curse. Some of these digressions reveal intriguing depths to Father James (like an acting duel between Gleeson and his son Domhnall, who plays a convicted killer). Others, seem like time killers.

McDonagh has a lot of intriguing ideas. This shouldn’t be surprising, because he’s the brother of Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). That said, one wishes he had been willing to sacrifice the tropes that didn’t work as well as the others.

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