It takes a moment. As “Calvary” opens, a small-town Irish priest sits to hear a confession. A few beats have likely come and gone before a viewer realizes that the image isn’t cutting away, that the audience is being asked to watch a man listen. It’s unusual but also unexpectedly riveting.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, “Calvary” reveals itself over and over to be a movie of such surprises, a serious-minded, lightly comedic rumination on life, death, faith and community. In its steady assemblage of details over an incidental, episodic structure, it accrues a building sense of moral gravity.
That the priest is played by an actor with the natural, compelling presence of Brendan Gleeson certainly helps. That what the priest hears from an unseen victim of priestly sexual abuse is a threat to kill him in one week’s time ups the ante as well, alongside the would-be villain’s rationale that killing a good, innocent priest such as Gleeson’s Father James will pack more of a wallop than killing an abuser. The film deftly avoids becoming some kind of whodunit in reverse, as McDonagh shows little particular interest in who might actually be the would-be killer. Rather, the inevitably of what’s coming gives a sense of clarity and purpose to everything the good father does in the time he has left.
McDonagh’s previous film, “The Guard,” which starred Gleeson alongside Don Cheadle, was something of a dark comedy, fish-out-of-water police procedural. There, variances in tone often came across as uncertainty, while in “Calvary” the story darts and dives with more assuredness, moving from serious to silly from scene to scene in what might be described as purposeful meandering.
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Often dressed in an anachronistic cassock and with a rather astonishing sweep of leonine hair, Gleeson cuts an imposing and authoritative figure, like something from a rough-edged spaghetti Western dropped on the dramatic west coast of Ireland. The role provides a fantastic showcase for the actor, as he captures the inner conflict and outward placidity of the character. Written with him in mind, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the part.
McDonagh often pulls tension from the postcard imagery of the settings, such as when Father James and his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), born before he joined the priesthood, have an intense, emotional conversation while walking along grand, picturesque cliffs. The film was shot by Larry Smith, cameraman on Stanley Kubrick’s dreamlike “Eyes Wide Shut” and more recently the garish, hypnotic “Only God Forgives,” and so the images have a dynamic quality to match the forceful storytelling.
The town has an assorted cast of characters — small-town eccentrics of various stripes — many of whom become possible suspects, played by actors including Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankole, Orla O’Rourke and the seemingly immortal American character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Perhaps to keep viewers off-balance, McDonagh continues throwing in new characters fairly late in the story, such as Gleeson’s real-life son Domhnall Gleeson in a single scene as an imprisoned serial killer. Chris O’Dowd, as the local butcher and cuckold, syncs well with McDonagh’s sensibility, moving from funny ha-ha to funny odd to outright unnerving.
McDonagh is the older brother of playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, writer-director of the dark thriller “In Bruges” and the inside-out killer comedy “Seven Psychopaths.” The two seem to share a creative DNA in the intense self-awareness of their storytelling — Gleeson at one point expressly refers to a “third-act revelation” — but “Calvary” has a humane compassion that the films of Martin McDonagh keep more buried.
As the end credits roll on “Calvary,” there is a series of images of the spaces from the film devoid of people — empty tables and open tableaux. It gives the life-or-death decisions of the movie a whole new framing, the world existing on after the travails of the story.
The film is then not so much a meditation but a reverie, a swirl of emotions and ideas, managing to be both calmly reflective and skittishly anxious at the same time. “Calvary” is a serious comedy, a funny drama, a ruminative film about life and a lively film about death. From the jolting simplicity of the opening scene right through those final shots, “Calvary” is never quite the film you expect it to be. It sneaks up on you.