Calvary is playing at Ithaca’s Cinemapolis weekdays at 4:30, 7:05 and 9:20 p.m. and on weekends at the same time and at 2:10 p.m.
Ithaca, N.Y. — Christ, the summer really must be near its end. From John Michael McDonagh comes Calvary, a bile-black comedy about a beleaguered Irish priest played by Brendan Gleeson, star of McDonagh’s last film The Guard. Whereas The Guard wore its cynicism like a glove, with Gleeson’s casually racist cop sparring with Don Cheadle’s no-nonsense FBI agent en route to seeing through some timeworn detectives-versus-drug kingpin plot, Calvary pursues this worldview to much more dramatic, depressing and largely fruitless ends.
During confession, Father James (Gleeson) receives an unseen man who vividly describes the constant, devastating sexual abuse his priest subjected him to as a child. Because the pedophile is long dead and a revenge killing would surprise few anyhow, the man promises to kill James, who he deems “a good priest,” the following Sunday, on the beach of their small seaside town, Easkey. That’ll send a message.
For facing queasy Roman Catholic history so directly and laying out the stakes so starkly, that opening scene is tough to beat. It’s a shame, then, that the power and control (it is shot in one take, a close-up of James’s solemn face) of this first scene are exceptions in an uneven, often monotonous story. As if nothing has changed, James goes about the next seven days tending to his usual parishioners, almost all of whom harbor or act out on a deep-seated need for violence.
There’s a dimwitted butcher (Chris O’Dowd); a psychotic, incarcerated cannibal (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan); a manic gay hustler (Owen Sharpe); a suicidal old writer (M. Emmet Walsh); an atheist surgeon (Aidan Glenn, also Lord Baelish on Game of Thrones) who taunts James with a brutal story about a deaf-mute-blind-paralyzed child; a bowtie-wearing young man (Killian Scott) whose good looks and posture mask an overwhelming loneliness and resentment towards women; and many others.
Some of these exchanges sneak in a brilliant or brilliantly stupid line, like when the butcher says of his cheating wife, “I think she’s bipolar or lactose intolerant. One of the two.” And there is a perverse pleasure in one of the film’s sole visual gags, of a drunken businessman (Dylan Moran) urinating on Holbein’s The Ambassadors to prove some kind of point about capitalism.
When looking at the picture as a whole, however, the problem emerges: these characters just aren’t all that human. If its hackneyed seven days/deadly sins framework does not give it away, this story prioritizes conscientious metaphors over exploring its dozen-plus (too many) troubled men and women. Such an approach may work for a bitter Godardian satire, but not when the institutional violence at the heart of this film’s conflict is so raw and recent. Clearly Father James wrestles with his faith to God in a world where his daughter (Kelly Reilly) comes home with bandages wrapped around her wrists; I only wish I could leave the film convinced that daughter is a living, breathing person who feels genuine pain, not a shill for some thesis that basically says, “Everybody Hurts.”
Gleeson, of course, is magnificent. As irritating it is for him to be the only levelheaded man on the face of the planet, Father James surveys the brooding Irish landscape and its little people with a sensitive, knowing eye. Gleeson sells the only profound moment with his gaze alone: Before boarding a plane to Dublin, ostensibly to escape the threat against his life, he catches the sight of a ground crew member leaning on the casket of his most devout parishioner’s husband, who earlier died in a car accident. Busy chatting with a colleague, the crewman does not notice the anguish fogging James’s eyes, who cannot bear to see another instance of human callousness, however unintentional. By the following cut, James has taken a drastic step, perhaps because he is now filled with more despair than hope for the future. As grave the moment may be, it is real, which, unfortunately, is an honor only the opening scene can also claim.