“I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old.”
Thus is the first of many quotable lines in Calvary, Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s second feature—one spoken off-screen in a brogue by an unseen man sitting opposite the Rev. James Lavelle inside a church confessional, high above the crashing waves in the fishing village of Easkey, in County Sligo, Ireland.
“It’s certainly a startling opening line,” the priest responds after a moment’s thought, the camera holding tight on his bearded face, the orange in his tousled tresses and husky whiskers giving way to the whiteness of time. This is a priest who’s heard a lot, and seen even more.
“Is that irony?” asks the voice on the other side of the booth.
“Sorry, let’s start again,” offers the Rev. James, played by the great Brendan Gleeson (Harry Potter’s “Mad-Eye” Moody), a 59-year-old character actor who’s now given his second outstanding star performance in a row for McDonagh. The filmmaker had previously cast him as the lead in his first film, 2011’s The Guard, which found Gleeson playing Gerry Boyle, a small-town Irish police sergeant with a taste for prostitutes, little interest in upholding the law and a penchant for quick-witted wordplay that’s just about the only thing these two characters share. Well, that, and a taste for the drink.
James, you see, is a recovering alcoholic. A good man, he came to the clergy late in life. Much humor is mined from the local townsfolk’s reaction to the revelation that their priest has a daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who comes from London to visit her dad after a failed suicide attempt.
“But you’re a priest,” says Milo (Killian Scott), a bowtie-wearing young man who’s never met a sexual fetish he hasn’t explored in his quest to find love—or at least get laid.
“I was married before I became a priest,” James explains to the small group gathered for a pint at the pub owned by Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt), who mistakes Fiona for a prostitute. “My wife and I had a child,” James continues. “My wife died, and I joined the priesthood.”
“You can do that, can you?” Milo asks.
“It would appear so,” adds Frank Harte (Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen), the local doctor who takes one look at Fiona’s bandaged wrists and says, “You made the classic error. You’re supposed to cut down, not across.”
In addition to Milo, Brendan and Frank, we’re introduced to other members of James’ flawed flock: Jack Brennan (Bridesmaids’ Chris O’Dowd), the town butcher/cuckold; his battered wife, Veronica (Orla O’Rourke); her lover, anti-authoritarian mechanic Simon Asamoah (Isaach De Bankolé); Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), a depressed one-percenter whose wife and child have left him with his guns, horses, scotch and priceless works of art to piss on; and Inspector Gerry Stanton (Gary Lydon), a character who’s appeared in both of McDonagh’s features, as well as his 2000 short film, The Second Death.
Death, in fact, hovers over this film like a cloud—just as it did in 2008’s In Bruges, a comic crime drama co-starring Gleeson that was written and directed by McDonagh’s younger brother, playwright Martin. (Talent runs in the family.)
Any of the townsmen I’ve mentioned could have been inside the confessional on that Sunday at the film’s outset, continuing his tale of being “raped by a priest when I was 7 years old. Every other day for five years. I bled a lot, as you can imagine. I bled a terrible amount.”
“I don’t know what to say to you. I have no answer for you,” says James, a man incapable of the type of horrors that became far too commonplace within the clergy. “I’m sorry.”
But this lost sheep isn’t seeking absolution. He’s interested in something else entirely: revenge.
“What’d be the point of killing the bastard?” he ponders. “There’s no point in killing a bad priest. But killing a good one? That’d be a shock now. … I’m going to kill you, Father. I’m going to kill you ’cause you’re innocent. Not right now, though. I’ll give you enough time to put your house in order. Make your peace with God. Sunday week, let’s say. I’ll meet you down on the beach there… Killing a priest on a Sunday,” he laughs. “That’ll be a good one.”
And so, a clock begins ticking as a dead man walks, still tending to his flock, his trials mounting by the day. It’s a classic American Western scenario, with the massive rocky outgrowths and damp green fields of Easkey standing in for the dry dust of Monument Valley.
“Your time is gone; you don’t even fookin’ realize it,” Lynch barks at James in his bar, as tension mounts and tragedies pile.
It’s not for nothing that the movie’s called Calvary, even if it’s easy to willfully misread McDonagh’s title. Alas, there’s no cavalry on the way; James steadfastly refuses to bring in the authorities or flee town. Like Gary Cooper’s Marshal Kane in High Noon, James marches stoically toward his would-be killer, armed with nothing but his faith.
But no matter how this confrontation turns out, one thing is clear: Gleeson and McDonagh have the makings of a lasting moviemaking matchup, like John Wayne under John Ford’s direction. Amen to that.
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon, Killian Scott, Orla O’Rourke, Owen Sharpe, David McSavage and Kelly Reilly. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. At Boston Common, Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner.