All is not as it seems in the idyllic Irish town where Father James (Brendan Gleeson) runs a small country church in director John Michael McDonagh's new film Calvary. The tiny seaside community is populated with a rogues gallery of citizens who wouldn't look too out of place in Twin Peaks. But instead of Lynchian dream logic, the activities of this dark comedy's characters are all too real, and all too human.
The film begins with a hook worthy of an old fashioned film noir. Father James is taking a confession from an unseen man who claims to have been brutally sexually exploited by a Catholic priest "every other day" during his childhood. When he finishes his harrowing tale, the penitent informs Father James that he plans to murder him and asks him if a week from Sunday would work okay. The penitent is very clear about his motives: He thinks Father James is a good, moral man who does a good job as parish priest. That's why killing him in cold blood will both hurt the Catholic Church worse than killing one of the pedophile priests like the one who raped him and will make a better story for the media. Incredulously, Father James agrees to meet the man on the beach in a little more than a week for his murder.
Naturally, Father James goes to see his boss, the bishop (David McSavage), for advice on what to do next. The bishop asks, "Do you know who it was who threatened you?" "Of course," says Father James. It's a small parish, and everybody knows everybody. The bishop gives Father James permission to go to the police, since it's clear that the threatening penitent isn't really penitent at all, and thus not covered under the confidentiality of the confession booth. But Father James says no, perhaps because he feels an institutional responsibility to the man whom his church wronged so brutally, or perhaps for reasons of his own that become more clear as the story progresses.
The simple fact that Father James already knows who his potential murderer will be but the audience doesn't is the single best choice director McDonagh makes in Calvary. This is the director's second film with Gleeson, a veteran character actor who might be most recognizable to American audiences from his role in the Harry Potter series as Hogwarts professor Mad-Eye Moody. McDonagh and Gleeson have developed a great director-actor rapport, allowing Gleeson to be captivating as Father James careens through the potential last week of his life, bouncing off the town's inhabitants and tying up loose ends. Strangely, the probably doomed priest seems to be the only person in town who actually enjoy living. His daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) has recently tried to kill herself after a bad breakup. A reclusive writer (M. Emmet Walsh, still awesome at age 79) is only holding on long enough to finish his last manuscript. The visiting priest Father Leary (David Wilmot) is cynical and flinty about Father Leary's parishioners, telling him "You're just a little too sharp for this place." But still Father James tries to do his duty and minister to his flock, confronting Jack Brennan (Chris O'Dowd) for beating his wife Veronica (Orla O'Rourke) who is having an adulterous, interracial affair with Simon (a terrifically stoic Isaach De Bankolé), even though none of the three participants in the violent love triangle appears to be ashamed of their actions or too bent out of shape about the consequences. The only person loving life in this town is the gay hustler Milo (Killian Scott).
McDonagh piles calamity upon calamity onto Father James, who never loses his good natured benevolence even as his life disintegrates around him and his resolve falters. Will Father James keep his fateful Sunday appointment on the beach? That's the question that keeps the tension ratcheting up in this otherwise shapeless parade of eccentric Irish characters. McDonagh's love of symmetrical compositions and the target rich environment of the scenic Irish countryside keep the proceedings visually interesting, but it's Gleeson's understated performance as a man trying to follow Jesus' example while everyone around him says, "What's the point?" that elevates Calvary to the realm of the divine.