“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”
“That’s the church. That’s not me.”
—Father James, Calvary
In Calvary, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) begins the worst and possibly last week of his life when he’s threatened in the confessional. An anonymous penitent tells James that he was repeatedly raped by a priest starting at the age of seven. That priest is now dead, but the man wants to a kill a priest anyway. He prefers his victim be a good and innocent priest, like Father James, because that would make people pay attention. James has a week to live. “Killing a priest on a Sunday,” the voice muses with the jangled amusement of the insane. “Now that’d be something.”
What follows is an assault on the spirit for Father James, as he waits for his day of judgment by association. The pastor of a small town in Sligo, a barren but beautiful landscape on the wind-sheared northwestern coastline of Ireland, James recalls the doughty and cynical policeman Gleeson played in writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s crackerjack debut film, 2011’s crime comedy The Guard. Again, Gleeson seems the smartest man for kilometers around, a beleaguered figure at the raw edge of civilization, rarely surprised at the depths people might reach.
In McDonagh’s latest packet of black gallows humor and spiritual noodling, James is practically an outcast, with two critical strikes against him. The first is his perceptiveness, which infuriates parishioners who alternately seek his counsel and scorn it. The second is that he unapologetically wears the flowing black robes of the priesthood in a country arguably more wounded than any other by its betrayal.
Time and again, as James ticks off his remaining days, the townspeople test and blame him. A gleefully atheistic doctor (an acidic Aiden Gillen, flashing a skull-like grin) taunts James’ faith, while a trio engaged in an abusive roundelay of infidelity (Chris O’Dowd, Orla O’Rouke, Isaach de Bankole) mock what they see as his judgment of their behavior. A pub owner who has just learned he’s losing his business to foreclosure, snarls at James, “What does your mob have to say about that?”
Still, James keeps on trudging down this cold, cruel Via Dolorosa. One source of inspiration appears to be his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). Unlike his watery-eyed and hapless fellow priest, Father Leary (David Wilmot), James lived a full life before entering the priesthood, weathering alcoholism, fathering a child, and losing a wife. But Fiona is very like her dad, a tough and wounded wreck, showing up at the train station with bandages on her wrists. When James jokes with her that she’s made the “classic mistake,” she replies that she knows, having slashed across instead of down. Theirs is a humor of shared pain.
The other force that helps James remain upright is his faith. Interestingly, for all the skepticism we hear from so many people around him, James’ belief in the Catholic God remains intact. A kind of spiritual Western, Calvary posits James as the lonely, noble sheriff, a Johnny Cash of the soul. A tragic figure caught between a divine realm that won’t answer his prayers and a physical one that ridicules him for even asking. When a mysterious arsonist (maybe his future murderer, maybe not) burns down the church, the residents who gather to watch don’t seem to care in the slightest.
It appears that the would-be killer speaks for a town and country deeply and enduringly enraged by the Catholic Church’s abuse and power-mongering. In one of the film’s more painful sequences, James spies a small girl walking just ahead of him on an isolated road. Being the friendly paternal figure that he is, James makes conversation. He cracks a couple of jokes, deduces what region she’s from by her accent. Then her father roars up in a car, barking at the girl to get in and to James to back off. He presumes James to be another priestly predator. Even as we might feel upset, Calvary invites us to understand both the father’s fear and James’ hurt as equally valid responses.
But astute moments like this also help to highlight Calvary‘s imperfections. A wordsmith of the first order, McDonagh yet packs in one outré character after another. They crowd a plot structure that is slow and steady, as James progresses through the seven daily stations toward his apparent execution. The exaggerated comic sensibility that McDonagh deployed so masterfully in The Guard is seeded into that progression like little gothic tics. Some of these tics appear in the form of characters, like a semi-deranged rent boy who talks only in a put-on Noo Joisey patois or an aging American writer (M. Emmet Walsh), who asks James to assist him in committing suicide; they’re reduced to one-note, fleeting distractions.
Such distractions sometimes serve to emphasize the dark burning kernel of McDonagh’s story. When it focuses on this kernel, Calvary conjures a saddened gravity, one that’s eluded many films about institutional faith. McDonagh goes past the fully acknowledged rage against the Church (whose representatives here, except for James, are a craven, cowardly lot) to ask a secondary question: What next? It’s a crucial question, and the film doesn’t frame it with any nostalgia for the blinkered obedience of the past. Instead, its unsentimental take on a generally amoral community casting stones at James, Calvary suggests that when the Church collapses as a social institution, what comes next is no great improvement.