By Shane M. Dallmann
CALVARY begins with one of the most unforgettable opening lines in recent memory (unrepeatable on this blog) and and takes it forward from there. We’re in contemporary Ireland, and Father James (Brendan Gleeson) receives a startling “confession” from one of his flock: said parishioner was sexually abused by a priest as a child, and even though the miscreant is long dead and Father James is “innocent,” the victim is going to make an example of the good priest by killing him in one week.
The metaphor couldn’t be more apparent (and check the title of the film if you think otherwise), but CALVARY isn’t nearly that simple-minded. Nor can it be taken as a straight-up suspense thriller or “whodunit”–Father James knows exactly who threatened him but chooses not to tell the viewer (or anyone else). Instead, he’s resolved to spend what may be his last week on earth ministering to his flock–as well as his grown daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) who’s recovering from a suicide attempt (James joined the priesthood well after the birth of his daughter and the subsequent death of his wife).
But as the days wear on, James is forced to consider what his role (as a priest and as a human being) actually means to anybody. Numerous residents of his coastal village line up dutifully as he dispenses the Sacrament, but not a one seems to have any use for him or his teachings–whether or not they feel like opening up to James, they make it clear that they’re going to proceed exactly as always with their adultery, domestic violence, drug abuse, compensation for sexual frustration, etc. And while some do offer James a modicum of sympathy and a kind word, those NOT in his flock (from the atheistic doctor to the Buddhist pubkeeper) treat him with unbridled contempt. His only real friends include a young boy first seen at work on a prophetic seascape… and M. Emmet Walsh. God bless M. Emmet Walsh just for BEING there and offering some relief from the intensity of this story–the effects of which will inevitably bring out the devil in Father James. Has he helped anybody at all?
If approached as a cut-and-dried story, CALVARY plays fair–in other words, you’ll find out who “did” it without any ambiguity or cheating (although one unpunished atrocity could have been committed by almost anybody in the movie). Nevertheless, it’s quite apparent that CALVARY isn’t here to provide answers so much as to ask questions. The themes run deep and dark, and when you’re dealing with a perfectly-chosen cast such as this and the powerful writing and direction of John Michael McDonagh (I must “confess” that I haven’t seen any of his previous work), then you’re dealing with one of the most provocative and challenging films you’re likely to see this year.