(John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
Brendan Gleeson is a great actor. And with John Michael McDonagh he seems to have found a writer-director who understands how best to use him, who sees the depths in him and is able to access them in his work.
Their first film together, The Guard, found the wicked humour in Gleeson, and let him deadpan his way through some hilarious dialogue, while never losing sight of the intelligence in his eyes. Here, McDonagh allows him to brood and think, and his expressive face and clear body language lets the audience in on what he is thinking.
And that in turn allows McDonagh to consider his big themes - faith and atheism, the Church and god, the meaning of religion itself - through his leading man. Gleeson plays a "good priest" in a small Sligo parish. Informed in a confessional in the opening scene by an unseen Parishioner that he will be murdered "Sunday week" as vengeance for the abuse the man suffered at the hands of a Priest as a child, he spends the week seemingly as he normally would. This provides an episodic structure but also allows McDonagh to portray not just the Priest but also his community as he visits troubled parishioners and they visit him.
They include a cynically aetheistic Surgeon (Aidan Gillen), an imprisoned serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson), a former banker who made millions from Celtic Tiger Ireland (Dylan Moran), a cuckolded butcher (Chris O'Dowd) and a few more. Gleeson dispenses advice, tries not to judge, gives the last rites, and argues theology with many. The Catholic Church is fair game in modern Ireland, seen as child abusing, greedy and fascistic, and Calvary reflects this nicely, in the many bitter barbs aimed Gleeson's way by his neighbours.
The most emotional storyline involves the arrival of his daughter (Kelly Reilly) wearing bandages on her wrists from a recent failed suicide attempt, and his attempts to deal with this while his own mortality hangs over him. McDonagh writes terrific dialogue, and that combined with an excellent cast allows the often simplistic archetypes which constitute his characters to burst to life here. They challenge, amuse and touch Gleeson and his own brilliance means that his struggle with their eccentricities and biases is always clear and involving.
McDonagh is a classicist in style, and his film is filled with simple, powerful compositions, artfully contrasting the huge skies and bleak beauty of Sligo with some startling stylised interiors. Mainly though his camera focuses on Gleeson. The big man can carry any film if allowed to, and given this script he works more than a few wonders.