By Darin Skaggs
In the first few minutes of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary a man claims he was raped as a child, there is a Meta moment of a character saying “That was quite the opening line”, a priest’s life is threatened and the very nature of good and bad is put to question. This is all done within five or so minutes and the only image we see is Father James (Brendon Gleeson) due to this scene happening all in a confessional booth. We do not know who the accuser is but we do see glimpses of the church goers. In this opening we learn the thesis of the entire film, which is a look at religion and why we get to put part of the nasty, sinning human race in charge of the church.
Gleeson gives one of the best performances of the year as a priest who is threated to be murdered a week from the opening scene because he is merely a good priest and the accuser just wants an innocent to die. This causes a subtle, moral dilemma in Father James who ponders if he is even a good guy like the confessor proclaims and why this man has chosen him. He is still in priest mode, even asks the accuser if he would like some therapeutic help for his past troubles.
In a sense James is a nice guy, all throughout the film he is trying to get help for people he believes could use it, but no one in the town cares. It is a town full of apathetic, rude people who do not care about James’ feelings. This makes the murder mystery aspect more interesting because every character is mean to Father James. At one point James’ dog is murdered and at a different moment his church is burnt down. It is revealed the man who wants to get rid of him did not kill his dog, which means even though one person just decides to come after Father James, some mystery attacker does not like him either, or maybe just religious figures in general. The anger in the towns’ people slowly gets to James and transfers over to him and he commits some not so saintly acts of his own.
The whole film takes a serious look at being a religious figure in a world of sinners, even when the leader is a sinner because it is human nature but it is also a surprisingly funny throughout. Darkly funny, but the humor is much needed in this gloomy story with the help of players like Chris O’Dowd and Aidan Gillen as some of the disrespectful towns people. Laughs also come out of the dialogue from moments of Meta which take a look at storytelling in general. It is also filled with words of wisdom including if murder in war is okay or an older character saying you know you are old when no one mentions the word death around you.
Calvary is filled with memorable lines hidden in a serious, yet funny, look at religion and its leaders. There is wonderful acting all around, Gleeson is absolutely astounding. It is one of the most powerful movies of the year.