As Father James (Brendan Gleeson) makes his rounds in a small Irish village along the rocky cliffs of County Sligo, each and every parishioner is a flamboyant figure of comic dysfunction, nihilism or misanthropy.
While writer-director John Michael McDonagh means to get laughs with these caricatures, he also means for you to take seriously the issues and ailments all suffer. For he has planted a ticking bomb into the priest’s village tour.
In the opening scene, an unseen man enters the confessional box and casually explains that he intends to kill the priest the following Sunday, charitably giving the good man a week to settle his affairs.
Father James tells his Bishop (David McSavage) he recognizes the voice but neither seeks police protection nor does anything else to save himself from his apparent fate. So each parishioner, or at least the male ones, represents to an audience a potential killer in what amounts to a pre-murder mystery.
Thus a dark cloud hovers over the comic effects achieved by the priest’s encounters with these extreme types. These include a reclusive, crotchety American novelist (M. Emmet Walsh) with thoughts of ending his life; an atheistic, coke-snorting surgeon (Aiden Gillen); a cuckolded butcher (Chris O’Dowd); his whorish wife (Orla O’Rourke); and her Islamic lover (Isaach de Bankolé) who believes Irish women like a beating every now and then.
A gay police inspector (Aiden Gillen) and his regular rent boy (Owen Sharpe) alternately shrug off and taunt the priest. A smug financier (Dylan Moran), who will soon be under indictment for financial irregularities, wishes to make a guilt-money contribution to the Church.
Suicide seems extremely popular in the village as mild-mannered Milo (Killian Scott) is contemplating this act over his lack of success with women. Indeed the priest’s own unhappy daughter (Kelly Reilly) from his marriage before he entered the priesthood as a widower only recently tried to kill herself.
And let’s not forget a former parishioner (Domhnall Gleeson) locked up in prison for cannibalism.
Everywhere lurks a simmering hostility toward the Church, even toward Father James, who clearly is an earnest and empathetic priest. None more so than with an angry barman (Pat Shortt) who blames everything and everyone for his business failure. That might as well include the Church.
The problem here is that as E. M. Forster once pronounced there are in fiction flat characters and round ones. The flat ones are types “constructed round a single idea or quality.”
All the characters in “Calvary” are flat with the exception of Father James and, briefly, a French tourist (the beauteous Marie-Josée Croze), who has lost her husband. The two have an exchange about death, faith and God at odds with the seriocomic flatness elsewhere.
So it’s hard to take seriously what McDonagh wants you to take seriously. Everyone seems to be auditioning for sketch comedy. The Not Ready for Catholic Hour Players perhaps?
The priest even makes comments about how one person’s material is “getting a little stale,” and at another moment he exclaims, “How’s that for a third-act revelation?”
This dramatic self-awareness extends throughout the movie so the final scene, meant to shock and amaze, falls exceedingly flat. It seems more like a poor third-act climax than an actual dramatic culmination of all the week’s highly contrived events.
For the record Gleeson puts across yet another superior performance as the world-weary yet compassionate priest with an ear for everyone yet a conscience that suffers fools badly. Just his luck, he works and lives in a village of fools.
Opens: August 1, 2014 (Fox Searchlight)
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankole, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josee Croze, Domhnall Gleeson, David Wilmot, Pat Shortt, Gary Lydon, Killian Scott, Orla O’Rourke, Owen Sharpe, David McSavage
Production companies: Reprisal Films, Octagon Films
Director/screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
Producers: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez, James Flynn
Executive producers: Robert Walak, Ronan Flynn
Director of photography: Larry Smith
Production designer: Mark Geraghty
Music: Patrick Cassidy
Costume designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh
Editor: Chris Gill
R rating, 100 minutes.