Calvary takes place over one fateful week, from Sunday to Sunday, in a small Irish parish, counting down to what may be the final moments in the life of a Catholic priest. The priest is Father Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), and he appears in almost every scene of the film, beginning with its first one: a single take close-up of Lavelle in his confession booth, listening intently as some unseen person relates the trauma he suffered at the hands of another holy man. “I was 7 years old when I first tasted semen,” the off-screen figure declares. “Certainly a startling opening line,” Lavelle replies, and the sentiment could apply, with some tweaking, to Calvary itself. The film waits only a few seconds longer to drop its own bombshell: The mystery man on the other side of the lattice vows to return, one week later, to murder Lavelle on the beach—not because he’s a bad priest, like the one who abused him, but because he’s a good one, and his death will turn heads.
There are hints of High Noon, the classic Gary Cooper oater, in that dramatic scenario, especially considering the less-than-positive stance both films take on the virtue of small-town people. Ticking clock aside, however, Calvary hasn’t much interest in suspense, and its hero doesn’t seek the protection or assistance of his neighbors. What’s at stake here, in this grim and grimly comic story, is how a man of God will face his fate. Will he skip town? Will he defend himself? Or will he accept his death sentence—as atonement on behalf of the Catholic Church, or perhaps as a sacrifice for the sins of his crooked community? (The title, after all, refers to the place where Christ was crucified.)
Over the course of the next seven days, Lavelle meets and talks with his fellow townsfolk, many of whom are weak, cruel, or uncaring. This motley bunch includes an atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen), the butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who may be beating his unfaithful wife (Orla O’Rourke), the town millionaire (Dylan Moran), a surly mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé), and an unqualified colleague (David Wilmot), among others. Lavelle’s daughter (Kelly Reilly) also arrives from the city, looking to lay low after a suicide attempt. The priest reminds her that her death would cause others pain. But wouldn’t it be a different form of suicide to surrender his life to the man at the beach? The identity of the prospective murderer remains a mystery to the audience, but not to Lavelle. The film peppers clues throughout, even as it unfolds in a way that suggests the answer is beside the point.
Some of Calvary is uncomfortably bleak. There is arson and animal cruelty and even a flesh-eating serial killer (Domhnall Gleeson, who shares a scene with the star of the film, his father). But writer-director John Michael McDonagh—brother of the English playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges)—has an ear for wry humor, providing his characters with a steady supply of acerbic wit. And he’s found in Gleeson, the star of his previous The Guard, the ideal delivery system for his heady chatter. The actor, in a typically tremendous performance, locates both an essential grace and a take-no-shit candidness in his potentially doomed protagonist. Lavelle is a man fighting, with every ounce of his strength, to hold onto his belief in people, even as the world around him jabs and pokes at that conviction. Does he win the battle for his faith? Calvary builds to an ending that feels cut-and-dry, while leaving the impression that some larger point—perhaps one about culpability, or responsibility, or God, or something even larger—may be getting lost along the way.