In Calvary, Brendan Gleeson plays a Catholic priest who plods through a rustic Irish village that’s more brutal than beautiful. With his beard grown long and his hair draped over his ears, Gleeson, an imposing, barrel-chested actor, resembles an ancient mammoth, and it’s quickly clear that his parishioners wish he were extinct.
When the ordinary sinners of Father James’ parish cross his path down at the pub, they can’t decide whether to insult him or confess. One local, however, decides to go further. Calvary opens with the father in his confessional, where a mysterious stranger tells him that, from the age of 7 to 12, he was raped by a priest. Now he desires Old Testament retribution.
In exactly one week, he wants innocent Father James to meet him on the shore so he can murder him in vengeance against the Church. With that hook, you’d expect writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s (The Guard) film to proceed like a whodunit, with the good priest trying to solve and prevent his death before it happens. Not so. The priest seems so resigned to his fate that, a third of the way through, we forget about the impending crime altogether — it’s at once both Chekhov’s gun and simply an excuse to watch closely how the townsfolk act toward a man of the cloth.
Gleeson is one of the finest actors we have, and in casting him as the lead, McDonagh stacks the deck so that regardless of our own religious reservations, we’re forced to care about Father James as a man. That he has no pretensions his life or death will change anything makes his willing sacrifice all the more saintly.