At the start of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, a stranger with a gravelly voice sits in the confession booth and tells Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) that he’s going to kill him in one week’s time. The story subsequently traces that week as a modest path leading to a clearing in the woods, evoking one of those films where the hero is told he’s got terminal cancer and the audience watches while he gets his affairs in order. Calvary also uses the device of “one week remaining” to string together a tapestry of the priest’s motley parish, a small Irish hamlet of all manner of small-town industry: hospital, auto repair shop, pub, train station, and so on. Only a fraction of the small population attends mass. Fewer still have a friendly word for Father Lavelle: With seven days’ worth of turns around the town, he’s got plenty of time to try and locate his murderer-to-be, and plenty of possible suspects.
McDonagh’s first film, The Guard, also starred Gleeson, as a tough-talking, irreverent village policeman, tainted by a handful of reasonably shocking vices, yet incorruptible in his virtue, a fat pebble standing against the deluge of drug smugglers and dirty cops. Calvary’s Father Lavelle, no spring chicken either, has plied his trade long enough to hold his own in conversation against all manner of sinner, from small-time blasphemers to big-timers, such as men who beat women, bankers who ruin lives, and the unspeakable, lost souls who murder children.
It ought also to be mentioned that, by design, Calvary is a hybrid comedy and melancholy slice of pastoral life. That pairing, historically, has tended to yield insufferable swill like Waking Ned Devine, but, behind a pleasant veneer, McDonagh leads Lavelle around the abyss to look at it from various angles, and chat with its various faces, resulting in a concoction of pleasing sweetness and acidity, like a coffee punched up with rye whiskey. If it’s a comedy, it’s grounded by flinty wisdom about the worst things men are capable of. But it’s scarcely dramatic, either, without a mischievous gleam in its eye. Nor is its wistful, sentimental side without pleasures. For every character like the blackly cynical Doctor Harte (Aidan Gillen), or the brutish mechanic Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), there’s Lavelle’s loving, fragile daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), or the kind, elderly novelist played by the too-little-seen M. Emmet Walsh.
While McDonagh doesn’t lack for intelligence, humanity, and a knack for crackling dialogue, which he also shares with his brother, Martin McDonagh, Calvary frustrates as potently as it entertains. McDonagh seems to want, but fails, to take a chain of spirited, knockabout sketches on character and morality, and turn the viewer’s countenance toward some larger, grander outline, a mighty philosophical gesture borne, for the most part, on the world’s outrage at the Catholic Church’s apparent indifference, cowardice, and disdain concerning the countless children who were sexually abused by its priests over (at least) the last half century.
That the faceless man who promises to kill Father Lavelle was once, as an altar boy, a victim of abuse, is information shared in Calvary’s first lines of dialogue. He tells Lavelle he’ll be killed because the priest is a good man, free of culpability, general and specific. Such a loaded declaration means to frame the ensuing developments in an ever-present snare, denying comfort to the viewer even in the film’s lightest moments. The snare, inevitably, is pulled taut, but if McDonagh means also to unveil a thesis statement, it doesn’t gel, and if all we’re meant to carry away is a few bruises and lacerations to mull over, existentially, then we may feel not only dissatisfied by the film’s 11th-hour turn toward lyrical fatalism, but, also, mildly insulted by the presumptuous attitude it seems to choose as it sends us on our way.