Brendan Gleeson stars as Father James, a priest who is told during Sunday confessional that he will be murdered in one week. Accepting his fate, James deals with his impending death whilst spending time with his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly) and dealing with the various grotesques and villains in the community, including an atheist doctor (Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen), an imprisoned serial killer (Domnhall Gleeson), and an abusive butcher (Chris O’ Dowd).
Opening with an unseen voice vividly recalling his abuse at the hands of a priest, Calvary starts as it means to go on. The film builds around a central mystery (who is James’ would-be murderer?) but, rather than using it to fuel an investigative pursuit, Calvary focuses on Gleeson as he questions his faith, morally tested by all around him. The haunted past of Catholicism in Ireland looms heavy over Calvary, like the landscapes captured by the stunning cinematography. James is challenged by every character; Gillen regularly taunts him about the futility of life, a philandering wife confesses her sins just for fun and, in a heartbreaking scene, an angry parent threatens James, mistaking his friendliness for something more sinister.
The supporting cast does interesting work with fabulously written characters; even with only minutes of screen time, Gillen is skin-crawling as the horribly bully who derives pleasure from denouncing God (his pub monologue is nightmare-inducing), while Chris O’Dowd gives his finest performance to date as the simpleton with troubling secrets. However, Calvary is carried by Gleeson’s award-winning performance as the tormented priest trying to do right in a world full of wrongs. In Father James, McDonagh created a humane, tragic character, and Gleeson rewarded him with a career-best performance.
The cinematography is fantastic and the screenplay is one of the sharpest in years, but it’s the acting (especially of Brendan Gleeson) that makes Calvary so stunning. Too bleak and challenging for some, Calvary is a film with important things to say about Catholicism and guilt, and it makes its point beautifully.