Brendan Gleeson—the hulking, ginger-haired Irish character actor who’s been quietly improving every movie he appears in for the last 25 years—gets a rare and welcome chance to show us what he’s made of in Calvary, a black-humored drama about faith and sin from the Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh. (The McDonagh brothers, John and his better-known playwright sibling Martin, seem to get Gleeson. Both of them have previously written and directed films that showcase this bearlike actor’s verbal dexterity and melancholy charm: for John, The Guard, and for Martin, In Bruges.) Calvary gives Gleeson ample opportunity to explore his talent for anchoring a movie, making it deeper and richer than the script and direction might otherwise allow. In fact, his character, a priest named Father James Lavelle, fulfills much the same role in the tiny Irish village where he’s the sole spiritual guide to a very unhappy and disturbingly violent collection of lost souls.
For a quaint seaside hamlet with a population that barely seems to make it past double digits, this town—it’s never named, but the film was mainly shot in a village called Easkey in County Sligo—has a healthy supply of psychos. The movie opens in a confessional booth, where an unseen speaker tells Father James in unstinting detail about his repeated rape at the hands of a Catholic priest as a boy. The speaker's revenge fantasy—which he presents as a concrete plan—is to take the life of a good priest, thereby somehow Nietzscheanly proving the absurdity of the universe and the non-existence of God. It’s a proposal for an act of atheistic terrorism we spend the rest of the film worrying might be carried out at any moment, though the difficult-to-fluster priest takes the danger in stride.
Indeed, the direct threat on Father James’ life isn’t even the worst thing currently going on in this crazy village. Jack (Chris O'Dowd) may or may not be hitting his wife (Orla O’Rourke), who is having an indiscreet-to-the-point-of-brazen affair with the town’s only black resident, an Ivory Coast immigrant working as a mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé.) A jail near the town houses an unrepentant young serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s real-life son) whom Father James regularly visits in the hope of saving his soul. And in another fun part of the priest’s job, a very rich man (Dylan Moran), whose wife and child have just left him, invites Father James over to his lavish mansion for regular counseling sessions that devolve into rounds of drunken anticlerical taunting. (At one point, the boorish billionaire takes down his own Hans Holbein painting and pees on it, just to show he can.)
Father James—who’s as much a therapist and social worker as he is a priest, and remarkably gifted at all three—slogs his way stubbornly through this small-town vale of tears, offering comfort and hope to his parishioners even as he appears to have little for himself. But when a young woman (Kelly Reilly) comes to town with her wrists bandaged from a recent suicide attempt, Father James’ own tangled history emerges.
Brendan Gleeson is both an introspective actor and one who can project an edge of barely contained danger. There are moments when Father James’ forbearance feels almost saintly, and others in which we feel he himself may be close to committing some unhinged act of violence. McDonagh understands that Gleeson’s broad, bearded face is his film’s true subject, and often films the priest in close-up, walking in his black cassock along the windswept cliffs behind the town. There’s something so elementally biblical about this vision that the script’s frequent and often jokey religious allusions start to feel unnecessary.
Line by line and scene by scene, though, McDonagh’s writing can be sensational. He deftly establishes not only the principals, but nearly a dozen smaller local characters, including an elderly American novelist (M. Emmett Walsh) and a nihilistic doctor (Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen), some with only a scene or two apiece. McDonagh’s dialogue isn’t naturalistic—it’s highly stylized, almost theatrical—but his florid style suits the symbol-laden, vaguely biblical world in which this story takes place. Questions of good and evil, salvation and damnation, hope and despair haunt every scene—not just because they’re implied by the general ominous mood, but because all these nimble-tongued Irish people can’t stop meeting at pubs to talk about them. (And not only talk but joke—for a movie about suicide, murder, and clerical sex abuse, Calvary is possessed of a rollicking Gaelic wit.)
Much of Calvary is a philosophical action movie, relatively placid on the surface but full of moral and theological twists: The question of who believes and who doesn’t, or what it would mean not to believe in anything at all, takes on a life-or-death importance. Calvary treats religious faith and the significance of its loss (both by an individual and by a culture) as a serious subject, a quality I admire.
But Calvary also makes some major missteps, often lurching from tone to tone (comic nihilism! Tragic nihilism! Psychological horror! Touching family drama!) in a way that feels random and uncontrolled. One of the oddballs Father James meets on his travels around town, a cynical gay hustler (Owen Sharpe), speaks entirely in a sexually explicit movie-gangster patois that’s so exaggerated, the character seems like a refugee from James Cagney’s lost burlesque show. Also, you might as well know going in that the last quarter of this film gets dark—so unremittingly so that it starts to seem as if McDonagh (whose wit, like his brother’s, has a sadistic edge) may have created all these flawed but sympathetic sinners just to deal them out various undeserved and miserable fates. Some of those fates seem designed to demonstrate the nihilistic philosophy outlined by Jack in that opening confessional scene; others hint, however obliquely, at the existence of the compassionate moral order Father James struggles to believe in.
The title of Calvary refers to the name of the hill on which Jesus was crucified, and in many ways this is a story of sacrifice and redemption. I won’t get into which (if any) of the souls of his lustful and murderous townsfolk Father James manages to save, but Brendan Gleeson’s infinitely patient and empathetic performance does an admirable job of saving this confused, tormented, but ultimately redeemable movie.
Update, Aug. 3, 2014: This review has been revised to remove a reference to the name of the character who is in the confessional at the film's opening.