It is Sunday morning and Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is taking confession, but the last member of the congregation to enter the booth has some surprising things to say. This man tells the priest he was sexually abused by one of the Catholic Church for some years as a child, week in, week out, and the corrosive effect of the ordeal has left him wishing to lash out. But he cannot kill the priest who regularly assaulted him for he died a long time before, and when Father James asks him if he has ever considered professional help to cope the advice is thrown back as the man does not wish to cope, he wants to nurse his anger until he attacks. To do that, he will not kill a paedophile priest, he will kill an innocent. He will kill Father James.
Writer and director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendan Gleeson reteamed after the international success of The Guard for another comedy drama, though in spite of the threat of violent death hanging over the protagonist they played down any thriller aspect in favour of long ruminations on the place of forgiveness in society. Specifically, whether the religious body who promoted forgiveness should be forgiven itself for the grave misdemeanours its representatives had committed: the topic of child-molesting priests was an extremely emotive one and had by the point this was released shaken the Catholic Church to its foundations, yet in a way that suggested nothing had been taken on board many felt justice had not been served.
Which led us to the premise of Calvary, as the title indicated placing a pious man in the position of scapegoat for the sins of mankind, or at least the part of mankind who preached the Biblical tenets while breaking them in horribly hypocritical fashion. Father James was that man, and in a difficult role Gleeson once more demonstrated is skill with holding together a film that without him at its centre would have been something of a shambles. You could see what McDonagh was getting at in his musings over theology and morality, not to mention sacrifice for the greater good, except the impending sacrifice wouldn't be for anyone's good, with Father James potentially not dying for anyone's sins, more with his life on the line as an act of outright vengeance for what he did not do.
It's as if society, with the villagers standing in for them, demanded some retribution that it felt it was not winning and in lieu of punishing the guilty, punishing the innocent was the next best thing. In that way the other actors were wheeled on to do their party pieces in a very stop-start manner, summing up various elements of the community to confront the good priest with the evil in the world that they are all too familiar with yet his advice will do nothing to allieviate the soul-destroying effects of. Therefore time and again, almost as if McDonagh had secured the services of a cast of fairly well-kent faces for a short period each, and mixed them all up to craft an ensemble, Father James finds he cannot help in the way that priests were supposed to, and realises he is a liability.
Chris O'Dowd is a butcher who may be beating his wife, doctor Aiden Gillen is a bone-deep cynic who grins his way through his atheism, Dylan Moran is a multimillionaire who keeps inviting the priest over to talk rubbish at him, Isaach De Bankolé is an African mechanic taking his pick of the women in the area, M. Emmet Walsh is an American writer who wants to finish his last book then die, and so on, every one of them damaged people who by all rights Father James should be able to help, but the script has it the only way he can do that is to die for their sins. This builds on the issues of forgiveness that continually emerge, with most pertinently Kelly Reilly as his daughter who is getting over a suicide attempt and has to reconcile her relationship with him, yet even this supposedly would best come about by his death. It's a bleak effort, and very much of its era with its central character a good, kind, decent man predictably buckling under the rotten state of modern existence just as society is demanding, but it would have been more provocative if he had not broken at all. Music by Patrick Cassidy.