Calvary devilishly satirizes all those charming Irish comedies of the 1990s (Waking Ned Devine, a prime example) that feature a rogue’s gallery of eccentric village characters pulling good-hearted tricks and romantic schemes, and where the parish priest is invariably a benign presence.
In writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s flinty vision of a town full of the banished, the exiled, and the failed on the misty, craggy west coast of the emerald-looking isle, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is the lone humanist, one of the few with any faith left. Now that Ireland has been rocked by the revelations of the Catholic Church’s abuse of children and the Celtic Tiger’s financial abuse of everyone else, he is solicitously warned in the confessional that he will be the sacrificial goat for all the country’s sins.
He gets a week to prepare, counted down day by day, to take an emotional road trip through his own and his colorful parishioners’ foibles, sins, and broken commandments. Which one solemnly taking communion on the first Sunday will do it? (The newspaper headlines of murders and hit men that they’re all reading reference McDonagh’s 2011 dark comedy The Guard.)
Wearing a long, old-fashioned cassock, Father James’s first heads to the railroad station to pick up Fiona (Kelly Reilly), the young woman for whom he is literally a father. His daughter has, again, failed at suicide. A British outsider wearing a broken heart on her necklace, she’s the only one in town not displaying a cross. She still holds a grudge against him for leaving her after her mother’s death to follow his higher calling.
Others challenge his authority and debate religion, starting with lusty, adulterous Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), who is just barely hiding bruises from her mocking husband, Jack the butcher (Chris O’Dowd, twisting his usual comic twinkle). Her lover, auto mechanic Simon Asamoah (Isaach de Bankolé), an African refugee, stayed after the failed promises of the economic boom.
Representing greed, and frequently riding by on a horse like a wannabe aristocrat, is about-to-be divorced and indicted financier Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who looks to absolve his conscience with a large contribution to the church. (Ironically, Brendan Gleeson played that kind of fallen master of the universe in John Boorman’s satirical The Tiger’s Tail in 2006.) The hard-drinking, chain-smoking barfly Frank Harte won’t surprise Game of Thrones fans used to seeing Aidan Gillen as the cynical Littlefinger, but he turns out to be a pessimistic doctor, representing the cold realism of science, seeing all the townspeople as headed to the morgue eventually.
Through these distractions from his looming fate, Father James continues his daily obligations as a priest. At mass, he supervises the punk altar boy (Mícheál Óg Lane) who is a constant teaser of the Church’s sins, which are the source of the expectant murderer’s wrath. The priest encounters, though, a sincere believer, an outsider, when French tourist Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) asks him to administer last rites to her Italian husband after a car accident. On another day, called to minister at the local prison, he remains hopeful of the potential repentance by serial killer Freddie Joyce (Brendan Gleeson’s chameleon acting son, Domhnall, who can make evil seem so pleasant).
There is the expected, somewhat silly comic relief by way of playing with types. The expatriate American, de rigueur since John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), is elderly novelist hermit Gerard Ryan (M. Emmet Walsh). Uptight, bow-tied Milo (Killian Scott) is mulling whether enlisting in the army will solve his virginity problem, and male prostitute Leo (Owen Sharpe) constantly is doing New York gangster movie imitations to entertain his client, the police chief.
But the smiles are mostly ironic as the tension builds towards whether Father James’s faith will break under the strain and if the sentence will be carried out on a lonely beach after everyone’s possible motives have been exposed. With a wallop, we are left to ponder what would happen to such a cinematically quaint town, and the genre, when its last moral center is gone.