The premise of Calvary, in limited release Aug. 1, is the feebleness of human justice in the face of terrible wrongs—a Flannery O’Connor–type story, but less mysterious. In the opening scene, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is listening in a confession booth as a man describes horrific abuse he suffered as a child from another priest. Father James suggests reporting the crimes to the authorities to seek some justice. The unknown man sees little point in retribution against a bad priest; instead he announces he will kill Father James in seven days. “I’m going to kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong,” the man says.
Father James, a bearish man who is not easily shaken, leaves the booth and goes back to normal life in his small town by the gorgeous Irish coast. Take out the threat of murder, and Calvary is simply a priest having daily conversations with his neighbors: an atheist surgeon, a wealthy banker, an adulterer, an old man who wants to die, and a socially inept bachelor. That might come across as stuffy if Gleeson weren’t a phenomenal actor and his character deftly written.
The Irish cast as a whole is stellar, outshining a couple minor, weak characters. If a film about human nature, forgiveness, and justice sounds ponderous, the dialogue is full of dry humor. The townspeople all make the same joke about suicide when they see the priest’s daughter has survived an attempt. “I already did that one,” the priest says.
Writer and director John Michael McDonagh has only directed one major film before, but he has a clear voice and is refreshingly sincere, without any winks or nods to the audience that say, Isn’t this Christianity thing ridiculous? When the local police inspector tells the priest that future generations would look back and laugh about people believing Christianity, the priest tells the detective that he knows very little about human nature.
Father James, who became a priest after his wife’s death, knows how to talk to the common man—he can sling a gun as well as whiskey. In one vignette, the priest visits a prison to meet a local serial killer who cannibalized his victims (played by Gleeson’s son, Domhnall Gleeson). Father James senses the man feels no remorse, but the killer says he does. The priest is unconvinced. “God made me, didn’t he?” the psychopathic man begs. “He understands me.”
The killer imagines that in heaven, his love for the women he killed will no longer be twisted. The priest is uneasy, searching for the boundaries of God’s mercy—but as we march through the week toward the threatened day of murder, he can’t find the limit. An adulterous wife interrupts the priest’s meal with his daughter to brazenly inform him of an upcoming tryst. Do you put up with this all the time? the daughter asks her dad. Perhaps someone asked Jesus that question: Do you put up with this all the time?
After seeing the film, I tried to make a list of the sins Father James confronts in the town and in himself: alcoholism, pornography, materialism, nominalism, adultery, racism, abuse, drug use, insincerity, murder, anger, and desire for power (the film is rated R for portraying many of these sins, as well as the plentiful profanity). Self-indulgence is depicted in all its banality. A banker shows off his wealth by urinating on a Hans Holbein painting. The adulterous wife oozes misery. Even James’ fellow priest Father Leary is an exasperating nincompoop.
Later in the film Father James tells his daughter that there is “too much talk about sins” and not enough about forgiveness. Think of that line as you watch the wrenching closing scene, which brings heaven down to all of these little hells we create.