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?”