Brendan Gleeson has acted in many Hollywood and British movies, but only the filmmakers in his native Ireland seem to have really figured out how to use this actor. His hulking frame, bulbous nose, and adenoidal bark of a voice can make him a terrifying presence in a character role, but the 59-year-old Dubliner also has a mixture of mischief and moral gravitas that makes him a powerful leading man when he’s given the chance. You can see this at work in one of the year’s best movies, Calvary, which expands to Tarrant County theaters this weekend.
The movie’s first line of dialogue — “I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old” — is spoken in a confessional by an unseen parishioner to Father James Lavelle (Gleeson). Properly shocked, the priest recovers to comment, “Certainly a startling opening line.” The impenitent penitent goes on to explain that since the priest who raped him is now dead, he intends to take retribution by murdering James in a week’s time: “Killing a bad priest isn’t news, but killing a good one? They won’t know what to make of that.”
You may be surprised to find out how funny this movie often is, given its bleak subject matter and forbidding title. You’ll be less surprised if you know that the film was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of the celebrated playwright Martin McDonagh and author of the uproarious 2011 buddy-cop thriller The Guard, which also starred Gleeson. McDonagh takes great pleasure in James’ sparkling conversations (what the Irish call craic) as he spends his week ministering to the various eccentrics who populate his seaside village in County Sligo, on Ireland’s northwest coast. These include an ancient American writer in exile (M. Emmet Walsh) and a creepy young man (Killian Scott) whose inability to lose his virginity has him thinking of either suicide or joining the army. “Those are pretty drastic options,” says James matter-of-factly. Even when an imprisoned cannibalistic serial killer (played by the lead actor’s son, Domhnall Gleeson) claims to have forgotten where he hid his last victim’s body, the priest can’t resist wisecracking: “Oh, where’d I leave my keys?”
The priest’s peppery wit is his way of keeping his balance in a dark world. The Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal was even more traumatic in Ireland than it was here, given the institution’s political and cultural power, and it casts a heavy shadow in this movie. To a lesser extent, so does the malfeasance of Ireland’s government and big business, which led the country into its current economic woes.
The church’s diminished authority has certainly emboldened the sinners around James — a sadistic, coke-snorting doctor (Aidan Gillen); an adulterous housewife (Orla O’Rourke) flaunting her affairs to her wretched husband (Chris O’Dowd); and a mechanic from the Ivory Coast (Isaach de Bankolé) who, when confronted about beating his girlfriend, says impudently, “White women like to be hit.” A loathsome rich man (Dylan Moran) makes a huge donation to James’ own church so he can parade his contempt for the corruption of the Catholic Church as a whole, and when a fellow priest (David Wilmot) venally sucks up to the wealthy man anyway and tries to minimize the sex abuse, James turns viciously on his colleague: “Why are you a priest? You should be an accountant in some fucking insurance company!”
Against this backdrop, the movie badly needs the scenes between James and his emotionally fragile daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) as a counterbalance. As Fiona takes temporary refuge with her dad and seeks reassurance that he hasn’t abandoned her for God, the palpable love and tenderness between these two is such that you can overlook Reilly’s unsteady Irish accent. (The actress is English, despite her red hair and her oh-so-Irish name.) Any sentimental tendencies in this part of the script are quashed by McDonagh’s hardheadedness. When James sees the bandage on her wrist from her recent suicide attempt, he says, “I see you made the classic error.” Used to her dad’s humor, Fiona responds seamlessly, “Cut across instead of down.”
Despite — or, more likely, because of — the priest’s temper, foul mouth, and struggles with drinking, it’s easy to see why he’s loved by his parishioners. His forbearance and innate decency make him a steadying influence in his community’s turbulent life, and his eventual willingness to die for his church’s sins leads him to a state of grace that’s deeply moving. Calvary deeply probes questions of faith, transgression, and forgiveness, but it doesn’t forget to accompany those with laugh lines that are as jolting as any shot of Irish whiskey.
Starring Brendan Gleeson and Kelly Reilly. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. Rated R.