Brendan Gleeson Anchors Coal-Black "Calvary"

God is great. The limits of His mercy have not been set.

If playwright Martin McDonagh’s deliciously dark action-comedy “In Bruges” crashed like a wave, “Calvary” – written and directed by his brother, John Michael McDonagh – reverberates like a thunderclap, streamrolling every good feeling in its path. It’s an audiovisual manifestation of the saddest Springsteen song never written, packing the bleakness of “Nebraska,” the angst of “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” and enough fatally flawed middle classers to set Asbury Park, New Jersey to ruin. Yet, improbably, the film isn’t without the kind of bone-dry humor that the brothers McDonagh are known for, making for a suitably dizzying foray into the blackness.

We begin in that blackness, an Irish priest listening to a confession, lit by sparse dots of yellow light. The parishioner remains entirely out of frame. Father James (Brendan Gleeson, “In Bruges”) listens intently as the man graphically details the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a different priest, before calmly describing a very specific plan for revenge. Not against the offending priest – long dead, he says – but against Father James. By the confessor’s twisted logic, his revenge must be as inexplicable as the crimes committed against him. He gives the priest a week to tidy up his personal life, promising that he’ll meet his death the following Sunday.

By framing the film as a mystery, McDonagh allows himself ample room to subvert audience expectations – something he does almost immediately. Firstly, Father James knows who made the threat. Initially, he wrestles with going to the police – the confessor wasn’t penitent – but ultimately remains true to confessional privilege. Not once does the name leave the priest’s lips, leaving the film’s biggest secret both out in the open and hidden away. Secondly, the opening exchange ends up a mere preview of the horrific conversations to come, led by a procession of troubled souls.

First and foremost, the priest’s estranged daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly, “Flight”), has just returned to Ireland after a suicidal episode. James was a husband and father turned widower turned priest, and given a short window to expedite reparations with his daughter, he attempts to make the best of things. Then, there’s a butcher (Chris O’Dowd, “Bridesmaids”) accused of assaulting his philandering wife, a drunk aristocrat (Dylan Moran, “Shaun Of The Dead”), a bitingly atheist doctor (Aiden Gillen, “The Dark Knight Rises”), a former pupil turned serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson, “About Time”), and a cavalcade of others unloading their inner demons on the priest as his final seven days flash by.

Theologians will note that Calvary was the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, making Father James’ place as a Christ figure clearly drawn in the pic’s title alone. There’s a quiet dignity and unwavering sense of resolve to the character that makes his moments of fear and self-doubt all the more heartbreaking. And Gleeson, who’s quietly become one of the acting greats of his generation, is pitch perfect in the role. It’s hard to imagine anyone balancing the character’s physical heft, warm personality, existential terror, and penchant for gallows humor as well as Gleeson does here. Yet, remarkably, he’s at his most electrifying when he says nothing at all.

Good actors speak believably, but it’s the great ones that can listen convincingly. And just as its star does so well, “Calvary” demands that its audience hears, processes, and grapples with what its characters are saying – and not saying. When the pic’s final images wash over us, they bear the emotional weight of all that’s come before – a tidy sum – and for a fleeting moment, a verbally forceful film goes quiet, allowing us to project the anger and fear and confusion that’s built up in our bodies. We can do nothing but think back to its first scene – the promises made, the promises broken, the lives that have changed, but mostly the ones that haven’t.

The picture is more traumatic than enjoyable, but there’s great beauty in both its scenery and the way McDonagh and his cast cut through us with surgical precision. If the project doesn’t entirely gel, it’s because the characters are so detached from themselves and one another that there’s no sense of community to this small Irish town. Father James merely moves from one conversation to another, each one self-contained to the point of raising invisible walls between them. But that’s the McDonagh brothers’ style, throwing a group of damaged misfits down a well and basking in the aftermath. In “Calvary,” it produces a wondrously dark, perhaps intentionally imperfect meditation on the nature of faith and the heights to which we’ll rise – or depths to which we’ll sink – to make sense of it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: August 1, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon, Killian Scott, Orla O’Rourke, Owen Sharpe, David McSavage
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use)