Director John Michael McDonagh wastes no time in establishing the stakes of Calvary. In a darkened confessional, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is told that he is going to die in a week. The man planning to kill the priest explains it is exactly because Father Lavelle has done nothing wrong that he is going to die. Of the two McDonagh brothers, John Michael is known for his irreverent comedy The Guard, but with this latest release he joins the ranks of the most fatalistic of Irish artists.
With the seven days allotted to the father, he seeks to sort out his affairs while attending to his parish. The locals in question are made up of Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, M. Emmet Walsh and Isaach De Bankolé all existing at varying levels of disillusionment with the church after so many scandals and personal failures. Adding to Father Lavelle’s dilemma is his daughter Fiona’s (Kelly Reilly) recent return to town after an attempt at suicide.
There is a black heart at the center of Calvary, raging against the storm. Father Lavelle knows his tormentor, but his respect for the confessional booth keeps him from turning in the man. The potential killer could be any one of his residents. Each man and woman unleashes vicious anger on the priest in hopes of not only tearing down the man, but the God Lavelle represents. Such blackness risks potentially overtaking the film, but, Gleeson, the heart of the film (though Reilly and Walsh stake their own claims for that) pulls it back from reaching melodrama.
A good man and priest by nature, Lavelle strains under the looming threat of his death. Besieged by the behavior of the local villagers, every passing day serves as a test of his faith. This struggle would be compelling material for any actor, but it is made all the more affecting here by the casting of Brendan Gleeson. It is almost criminal how underrated Gleeson is as an actor. In the decades worth of versatile performances he has turned in, exactly zero have garnered him an Academy Award nomination. A turn this strong and this powerful deserves some buzz, and it’s about time to recognize the man who has been stealing shows for years.
McDonagh’s philosophical musings lead to quandaries in the heart of Lavelle and viewers as well; a close spiritual companion to Calvary could be found in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Neither film could be considered a faithful Biblical adaptation, but they offer more emotional charge and understanding than something that is straight from the good book. An institution as large as The Catholic Church cannot make penance, but one man can. And when that man is played by Brendan Gleeson, a film doesn’t get much finer than that. From its very intense opening to the final shattering conclusion, Calvary might very well be 2014′s first masterpiece.