“That's nothing but cheap cynicism!" bellows Father James (Brendan Gleeson) to a villager detailing his dark view of the world, only to be told that it may be cynical but there's nothing cheap about it — it was hard-earned. A similar description can apply to Calvary, which provides such a fatalistic view of human nature that even atheistic audience members might feel inclined to pick up the good book for comfort. Yet thanks to writer-director John Michael McDonagh's powerhouse script and Gleeson's superb central performance, Calvary earns its sour stripes — it's a bruising beauty of a film.
"I was seven years old the first time I tasted semen," states the voice emanating from the other side of the confessional. "That's definitely a startling opening line," retorts Father James, speaking both for himself and for viewers still settling into their seats as the picture commences. The voice belongs to an individual who was abused for years by a man of the cloth. The victim states that as retaliation, he wants to shock the world by killing a good priest, a man like Father James.
This sets the tone for the picture, as Father James spends the next week conducting God's business as usual, knowing that his time might be drawing to an end. But whereas Father James truly is a good person, the same can't be said for his constituents, a foul lot that includes an adulterous wife (Orla O'Rourke), her ineffectual husband (Chris O'Dowd), her abusive boyfriend (Isaach De Bankole), a heartless doctor (Aidan Gillen) and other morally bankrupt individuals.
The clergyman can't seem to make any headway with this group — one of them even burns down his church — and even outsiders treat him poorly. A chat with a young girl vacationing in the area leads to nasty words from her dad, who's convinced that Father James was preparing to molest his daughter because he's a priest and abusing children seems to be their only purpose in this modern age.
McDonagh and Gleeson previously teamed up for The Guard, which ended up being one of the best films of 2011. This latest effort may not quite match that one, but it includes the same ingredients that powered that picture, including smart dialogue, compelling characters, a wicked sense of humor and a towering turn from Gleeson. His Father James is a marvelous creation, and the actor provides the crucial core of humanity in this servant of God who tries to stand tall even as the world around him burns to the ground.