In Calvary, Brendan Gleeson plays a Catholic priest who plods through a rustic Irish village that's more brutal than beautiful. The beach is gray, the waves are choppy, and the wind whips his ankle-length black cassock as though every step were a fight against nature. In some ways, it is. Gleeson, an imposing, barrel-chested actor, here appears even woollier. With his patchwork red-and-gray beard grown long and his hair draped over his ears, he resembles an ancient mammoth, and it's quickly clear that his parishioners wish he were extinct.
Gleeson's Father James shouldn't take it personally. Though Ireland still describes itself as a religious country — nearly 85 percent of the Republic claims to be Catholic — the current generation toggles among anger, apathy, and angst. The church's chokehold on the government has only in their lifetime begun to loosen: Divorce finally became legal in 1997, abortion just this year. During that same stretch, the nation was rocked by child-molestation scandals, and Sunday Mass attendance dropped by half. Yet in a country where Catholicism and culture were once synonymous, the people remain steeped in tradition almost reluctantly, as if it's a damp sweater they can't peel off. When the ordinary sinners of Father James' parish cross his path down at the pub, they can't decide whether to insult him or confess. They tend to do both, the entire hamlet behaving like teenagers who are acting out against their dads.
One local, however, decides to go further. Calvary opens with a claustrophobic shot of the priest in his confessional, raising his eyebrows in slight surprise when a parishioner slips into the other side to talk. What the mysterious stranger says makes things worse. From the age of 7 to 12, he was raped by a priest. Now he desires Old Testament retribution. In exactly one week — "A Sunday, that'll be a good one" — he wants Father James to meet him on the shore so he can murder him in vengeance against the church. "There's no point in killing a bad priest," the man jokes. Father James, however, is innocent, which means just as the town has reduced him to a symbol of the faith they hate, his assassin sees him as the perfect martyr.
With that hook, you'd expect writer/director John Michael McDonagh's (The Guard) film to proceed like a whodunit, with the good priest trying to solve and prevent his death before it happens. Not so. In a town this small, Father James has already pinpointed the killer by voice, not that we're privy to his scoop. Initially, we suspect everyone: the bitter doctor (Aidan Gillen), the sexually frustrated nerd (Killian Scott), the rich drunk (Dylan Moran), the bankrupted pub owner (Pat Shortt), the meatheaded local butcher (Chris O'Dowd), and the Ivory Coast Lothario (Isaach De Bankolé) bonking the butcher's shallow wife (Orla O'Rourke). McDonagh jump-scares us by having the suspects suddenly pop up to glower at Father James' back or slam-cutting to a close-up of raw meat thwacked by a cleaver. But the priest seems so resigned to his fate that, a third of the way through, we forget about the impending crime altogether — it's at once both Chekhov's gun and simply an excuse to watch closely how the townsfolk act toward a man of the cloth.
Like his brother Martin, the U.K. playwright of The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (and director of In Bruges, another philosophical comedy that hinges on killing a priest), McDonagh specializes in literate tragicomedies that show off their talents while tearing up the image of Ireland as a postcard place of cheery hills and big-grinning drunks. That's blarney. Modern Ireland is in a fascinating moment of self-reflection and deserves storytellers like the McDonagh brothers, who give the country's struggles weight, if not quite dignity. Even the stereotypes seem aware that they're stereotypes. Sighs Gillen, "The atheistic doctor, it's a cliché part to play," a line that gets a giggle but is too self-aware to register as more than McDonagh beating us to the punch. When another character, a reclusive old novelist (M. Emmet Walsh), breezily insists, "My whole life is an affectation," Father James blurts, "That's one of those lines that sounds witty but doesn't actually make sense."
Everyone besides Gleeson is forced to act like a bow-tie-wearing, lollipop-sucking, cocaine-snorting kook. There's even a bit part for a gay hustler (Owen Sharpe) who talks like Jimmy Cagney and wears the only other crucifix in town. They're all vibrating on a wackier frequency than Gleeson, pinging off him like cheap BB-gun pellets while he gives the film more gravitas than the other characters deserve. He has the odd ability to take up most of the space on a screen while seeming almost see-through — his face hardly moves, but all his vulnerabilities are laid bare. He's one of the finest actors we have, and in casting him as the lead, McDonagh — no fan of the church himself, I'd wager — stacks the deck so that regardless of our own religious reservations, we're forced to care about Father James as a man. You can't help but think of that 2,000-year-old martyr who also accepted his own death — a suicide of sorts — and changed history. That Father James has no pretensions his life or death will change anything makes his willing sacrifice all the more saintly.