Now playing at a indie art house near you...
In Writer/Director John Michael McDonagh’s 2011 comic Irish thriller THE GUARD, Brendan Gleeson’s partying police sergeant lead came off as a ballsy blend of Dirty Harry and Benny Hill. In McDonagh’s fine follow-up CALVARY, now playing in the Triangle area, the bearded bearish Gleeson plays a less outlandish, much more grounded protagonist, a small town parish priest whose downbeat demeanor belies his gentle and kind soul.
The film, named after the hill near Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, begins with a close-up of Gleeson in the darkness of a confession booth listening to the unidentified voice of a man who speaks of being sexually abused by a priest when he was a child. As the offender is long dead, the man plans to take revenge on the Catholic Church by killing a good priest, which he figures will make more of a statement than killing a bad one. He gives Gleeson until the next Sunday to get his house in order: “Killing a priest on a Sunday; that'll be a good one!”
As his quaint coastal village – the film was shot in Easkey in County Sligo, Ireland – is sparsely populated, there are few suspects, so right off Gleeson has a good idea of who the threat is coming from (so may many in the audience who are familiar with the cast), but he doesn’t go to the police.
Instead our pious priest protagonist goes about his daily duties of tending to the townfolk, including Chris O’Dowd as the local butcher whose wife (Orla O’Rourke) has been cheating with the local mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé). O’Dowd claims that De Bankolé is where his unfaithful wife got the shiner she’s been sporting (or more accurately hiding under Jackie O-style sunglasses).
Gleeson also deals with Dylan Moran (SHAWN OF THE DEAD) as a drunk millionaire who wants to donate money to the church to help absolve his guilt over how he obtained his riches, a former student behind bars for murder and cannibalism (played by Gleeson’s real-life son Domhnall) the always welcome (and always grizzled as Hell) M. Emmett Walsh only credited as “The Writer” who asks the priest to get him a gun (a Walther PPK – James Bond’s weapon of choice, in fact), and Aidan Gillen (The Wire, Game of Thrones) as the town’s physician who says of himself: “the atheistic doctor, it’s a cliché part to part.”
There’s also Gleeson’s adult daughter (Kelly Reilly) in town to recover after a suicide attempt. Reilly and Gleeson’s scenes together have a quiet power; at one crucial point they share a shadowy confession booth pondering questions of salvation and damnation. One can really feel through their exchange how troubling laws of spirituality can be, especially when considering that they may not really exist.
Things get out of Gleeson’s hands, in the film’s unsettling second half. Somebody burns down Gleeson’s church, his dog is found dead, and the long sober priest goes on a bender at the local pub.
There are many amusing lines and moments in CALVARY, but few laugh out loud instances as it’s a drama speckled with black comedy rather than a black comedy decorated with dramatic bits. It pokes fun at the notion of Gleeson living by a moral code, yet still respects him for trying to do so; it pities rather than ridicules religion.
On the surface, Gleeson puts in a performance that can be seen as a huge shrugging off of a lifetime of tiring existential ponderings, but look deeper and you’ll see a masterful portrayal of a sincere as sin holy man at the end of his rope.