Brendan Gleeson is one of those actors who makes almost any movie worth watching, and this one is no exception. Filmmaker John Michael McDonagh, who gave him a great role in The Guard has done so again in Calvary, but the tone of this picture couldn’t be more different. In that darkly comic film, Gleeson played a maverick policeman with an agenda all his own. In this one, set in yet another small, tight-knit Irish coastal community, he’s once again a loner: an old-fashioned Catholic priest whose honest faith in God puts him at odds with everyone around him. The various townspeople, rich and poor, have become hardened, cynical, or aloof, and because of that they dislike and distrust him. He doesn’t even see eye to eye with his fellow cleric.
In the opening scene of the film one of those villagers, who is justifiably angry at the Catholic Church, vows to kill Gleeson in one week’s time. Who is capable of committing such a crime against an innocent man, and can he be stopped?
Gleeson goes through a gamut of emotions during that eventful week. His daughter (Kelly Reilly) comes to visit, following a failed suicide attempt. She has issues with her father (who entered the priesthood after the death of his wife) but the bond between them is strong—stronger than she may even realize.
At times, Gleeson’s character resembles Gary Cooper in High Noon: a man who refuses to turn his back on his town even though they have abandoned him. Events cause him to question his own faith, but he remains pure of heart, and that’s what makes the character so compelling.
Calvary is not without wit or black humor, but it is a mournful film. It bemoans our loss of faith and optimism—clearly this is not just about Ireland—and asks us whether or not a truly good man has a place in that world, or is he a living anachronism? With the resolution of the story, and its postscript, McDonagh asks us to weigh that question carefully. If you stay through the credits (as you should) you’ll understand, even more, why I choose to describe this provocative film as mournful.