Brendan Gleeson is amazing in Calvary. Too bad the bleak film doesn’t quite match its star.

We have too much talk about sins, and not enough about virtues. I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.

–Father James

Calvary opens with a minutes-long shot of Father James Lavelle, an Irish priest, hearing a confession. Alone in the darkened booth, Father James hears an unseen man divulge years of abuse by his parish priest when he was a young boy in very graphic terms. The priest is concerned but not shocked. Sadly, stories of sexual abuse by priests are nothing new in the current age. It’s too late to save the confessor from his abuser — that priest has been dead for years. The unseen man still boils with an unresolved anger, and it needs an outlet. To reclaim his debt, he vows that he will kill Father James next Sunday, giving the priest a week to get his affairs in order. But why Father James? Even the killer says he has no particular grudge, that Father James is (a term that will be used many times throughout the film) a good man. “There’s no point in killing a bad priest,” the confessor muses. “But killing a good one? That’ll be a shock.”

So begins John Michael McDonagh’s second film, giving us an early chance to see star Brendan Gleeson work his magic. As the conversation plays out across that single uninterrupted shot we get to see a wide range of emotions cross Gleeson’s face, concern, disgust, empathy, and surprise among them. It’s also a primer for the film’s tone, littered with dark comedy and a few knowing winks to the audience (“That’s certainly a startling opening line.”) This is the perfect way to start Calvary because, despite everything else to follow, Gleeson’s abilities are the film’s showpiece.

Brendan Gleeson is one of those actors that you just know you’ve seen before even if you can’t exactly place where. The Irish actor once described by Roger Ebert as having the “noble shambles of a face and the heft of a boxer gone to seed” is probably best known to American audiences as Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter films, William Wallace’s burly sidekick in Braveheart, or for costarring in In Bruges alongside Colin Farrell. In Calvary, McDonagh gives Gleeson the chance at the type of starring role that he rarely nabs stateside, and he’s completely up to the challenge. Sporting a thick, graying red beard, he looks at home in the cassock and on the beautiful Irish coastline.

Saddled by his date with destiny, Father James spends the week performing his regular duties, only mentioning the threat to his bishop — who urges him to alert the authorities, since the man in the confessional was not seeking absolution for past sins but making threats. Father James never does. He’d rather spend his time tending to his troubled flock, a group of lost souls that nonetheless attend his services. Many of them seem to enjoy needling the priest, flaunting their sins in front of him and poking at his vows. They’re a group of abusers, adulterers, future suicides, and the just plain crazy. But Father James has time for all of them. It’s what a good priest would do. When a townsman asks Father James why he wastes his time with the local pariah, Freddie Joyce, a confused young man guilty of murdering and cannibalizing several people (played spookily by Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan Gleeson’s own son) Father James asserts that everyone needs absolution. Freddie Joyce may even need it the most. Indeed, he’s one of the few who seems to get anything from Father James’s words.

Unfortunately, not all of the parishioners really work as characters. There’s too many of them to give any enough screen time, and as a result, many of the characters seem like incomplete sketches. Many are there simply to represent a certain facet of sin. A gay male prostitute, particularly, seems completely out of place in the film, and you ache for more scenes featuring Aidan Gillan (Game of Thrones’s Littlefinger, one of the few actors Amerian audiences may recognize) as an atheist doctor. He flaunts Father James’s last rites and sacraments to a man on life support as “gobbledygook,” and flatly tells the priest that he now has a man to kill before disappearing to the sidelines for the remainder of the film.

If Father James can’t bring himself to judge these people, it’s because he knows that he himself is not blameless. Countless characters tell the priest that he’s “a good man,” but he knows that he’s not perfect. He struggles with alcoholism and being an absentee father. Father James is a widower who joined the priesthood after his wife’s passing, leaving his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) behind with a sense that she lost not just her mother, but both parents. When she arrives in town with fresh scars from an attempted suicide, Father James can’t help but feel partially responsible. She spends the week with him, herself looking for her own absolution while unaware of her father’s impending doom.

Calvary constantly grapples with the question of what a priest’s role is in this modern world among these unrepentant sinners, and the film struggles to find a perfect answer. The bad priest has had plenty of cultural currency in the last decade in films such as Doubt, Bad Education, and Deliver Us From Evil. Even Philomena dealt with some evil in the Catholic Church, but Calvary looks at priestly sexual abuse via the destruction of a man who is wholly innocent. The film’s title is another name for the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion, drawing parallels between the Christian messiah and Father James, men struggling with the impending knowledge that they will die for the sins of others.

Calvary definitely isn’t a perfect film. Much of the first two acts are a confused tangle of thinly sketched characters, thankfully held together by the film’s dark comedy and Gleeson’s mesmerizing performance. Throughout, the film remains painfully bleak and somewhat indifferent. But the film finally reaches for some greatness in its third act even if that may be a little out of its reach. Though Calvary certainly doesn’t paint the church as a fount of harmony and forgiveness, there are some who find peace thanks to Father James’s efforts. As he tells Fiona, sometimes the church does “too much talk about sins, and not enough about virtues. I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.” If only a little of that sentiment didn’t seem undercut when mixed with the film’s dark humor. The film’s finale is shockingly heavy, but I won’t say more than that. I don’t want to ruin the end.

It’s a good, not great, film featuring an excellent performance by Gleeson. It’s the type of late summer performance that’s often sadly overlooked at Oscar time, and that’s too bad. Gleeson shoulders much of the film’s oppressive weight, and it would almost certainly have collapsed without him. Calvary’s a little bit difficult to recommend. Like I said, it’s quite bleak, but Gleeson’s performance shouldn’t be missed.


Film: B
Gleeson: A

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