Brendon Gleeson’s face is a landscape of crags and ridges framed by a mane of wind-whipped hair—a countenance that echoes the wild, Irish coast of County Sligo, the setting for brooding Calvary. Shots of otherworldly Benbulbin, the weird, flat-topped mountain that looms over the small town of Easkey, establishes a mood of eerie omniscience that dogs Calvary to its violent conclusion.
The movie begins with an irresistible premise: during confession, a parishioner tells a Father James (Gleeson) that as a boy, he was repeated molested by a priest. Because of this transgression he will kill Father James in seven days to avenge the “original sin” of the now-deceased molester. It’s a great framing device, one that provides director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Ned Kelly) with a clock-is-ticking countdown to resolve this theological whodunnit.
Given its title, it’s no coincidence that Calvary is rife with biblical symbolism. Like a modern-day Job, Father James is harassed and beleaguered by his parishioners who challenge him at every juncture about matters of faith, integrity, and the role of the Catholic church in modern life. Accusations of adultery, usury, perfidy, and all other iterations of mortal and venal sins are volley back and forth. Father James has no compunction about taking swipes at the church. James literally and figuratively takes punches that each parishioner doles out (no pushover, Father James also gets in his licks).
In an exchange with fellow priest Father Leary—a toady functionary wonderfully played as a comic foil by David Wilmot—Father James accuses Leary of lacking integrity and having faith that’s merely skin deep. Without abiding faith, life is insufferable (other than Father James, the only other person depicted with true faith is a French tourist whose husband dies in a car accident). Given that so many in the movie question faith, it’s no surprise that midway through the film Father James church is burned to the ground. Heavy symbolism indeed.
Father James isn’t going down without a fight; he’s no willing, sacrificial lamb. Father James knows the identity of his assassin, and rather than fleeing, he lives out his remaining days with increasing intensity as he uneasily confronts his own demons while reconciling his strained relationship with his adult daughter Fiona (the luminous Kelly Reilly), who dresses him down for abandoning her for the priesthood. Indeed, Fiona becomes a confessor to her father, whose only other friend and confidant is his dog Bruno.
As Sunday approaches, Father James reconciles his affairs. At the beach, about to meet his killer, Father James counsels Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a morally bankrupt millionaire who stands in for Ireland’s failed
“Celtic Tiger” property bubble that ruined the country’s economy. Looking his killer in the eye, Father James faces down death not with a long-winded speech, but with a mixture of defiance, fear, and faith. In the end, it doesn’t so much matter who killed Father James as it is what people do or don’t do in the name of God.