Here's a checklist to take with you when you see Calvary: Hoagy Carmichael, Fred Neil, Townes Van Zandt, David Gates, H.P. Lovecraft, John Banville, Herman Melville, St. Augustine.
John Michael McDonagh plants these references - music, literary, philosophical - like little land mines in his stormy dream of a film. When the songs are heard, the books read, the citations hung with portent on the screen, all sorts of aha! explosions go off. We know where the writer/director - brother of In Bruges' Martin McDonagh - is coming from. We know where the people in his film are coming from, and perhaps where they're going.
A darkly funny, furious look at the nature of faith in a world gone wrong, Calvary stars the bearlike Brendan Gleeson as a good priest in a small parish in the west of Ireland. Taking confession on a Sunday after Mass, Father James hears something he's never heard before: "I'm going to kill you," the man on the other side of the screen vows.
The parishioner, unrecognized, explains that as an altar boy he was sexually abused. To punish Father James for the sins of his fellow priests seems like the perfect, ironic act of retribution.
In one week, the Sunday next, Father James must meet him on the beach. And Father James will die.
Gleeson's priest, in his beard and his black cassock, has a week to get his life in order, to consider whether the threat is real, and what, if anything, can be done. Before he joined the priesthood, Father James was married and had a daughter. Fiona (the sad-eyed Kelly Reilly) now is a grown woman, and one of the souls he must meet with over the course of the seven days. Others are villagers: a butcher, a barkeep, a doctor, a money man. Is one of these his executioner?
Calvary plays out like a whodunit, even if the deed has not yet been dun. We go looking for clues along with the good Father, a telltale sign, a slip of the tongue. Calvary also plays out like High Noon: Gleeson in the Gary Cooper role, a man of the cloth instead of the law, facing his reckoning, seeking a way out.
Gleeson, who starred opposite Don Cheadle in McDonagh's jauntier 2011 film, The Guard, is nothing short of magnificent. The actor projects fierce intelligence, wit, gentleness, ruefulness, soulfulness. His Father James is hardly a saint. He is a man who finds the good in people and in himself, even as he knows that bad lurks there, too.
Calvary is also just jaw-droppingly beautiful. McDonagh and cinematographer Larry Smith capture the four-seasons-in-one-day miracle that is Ireland, with its jagged stonescapes, roiling surf, fairie towns, and bracing skies. How can a place this beautiful be host to such brutality, such sorrow?
Because humans walk upon it.
Calvary **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by John Michael McDonagh. With Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Isaach De Bankolé. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.EndText