Writer-director John Michael McDonagh's Calvary is a deadpan comedy that still manages to sneak in some pretty heady and challenging questions about the nature of sin and redemption. Are the priests who ignored sexual abusers in their own church just as guilty of their crimes? When Jesus died for the world's sins, was it tantamount to suicide? If we're just actors in a play that has already been written, do concepts of sin and virtue even exist? Can the world survive human nature if no one believes in something greater than themselves? "Do you know what felching is?"
That last question, asked with an innocent sort of disgust by an unworldly young priest ("I had to look it up"), is a perfect example of the way that McDonagh balances expansive philosophical ideas against Kevin Smith-style, naughty-boy shock humor. Much like McDonagh's 2011 directorial debut The Guard, Calvary traffics in that borderline surreal dichotomy between the existential and the vulgar. It is a tough trick to pull off, and too often the results feel frosty and smug, with a bigness more suited to the proscenium arch than the letterbox.
However, there is also a lot to like in McDonagh's jaundiced but oddly humane vision, most especially the performance of Brendan Gleeson, who also starred in and was the best thing about The Guard. He plays Father James, a decent but slightly surly man contentedly living the simple life of the priesthood. It's a profession that he turned to after the untimely death of his wife, a retreat from the material world of emotional complications that forced him to abandon his still-resentful daughter (Kelly Reilly from Flight).
When an unseen man enters the church confessional booth in the opening scene, Father James is absorbed in a book, and we get the impression that he is neither accustomed to nor particularly interested in people seeking his counsel. As it turns out, the unseen man has not come to confess his sins, but rather to announce his intentions to murder Father James. This would-be murderer's motive is revenge for a scarring childhood of sexual abuse by priests, and although Father James never committed such crimes, he is considered the ideal symbolic victim. "I'm going to kill you because you're innocent."
McDonagh establishes cheeky self-consciousness as the prevailing attitude right from this opening scene. The first line of the film is, "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old," to which Father James returns, "That certainly is a startling opening line." This sort of winking self-awareness is returned to repeatedly (a cynical doctor labels himself "a clichéd part to play"), and it comes off as an adolescent and ill-advised stab at ironic detachment. In the future, McDonagh should save that sort of stuff for the likes of One Night at McCool's and concentrate on creating a coherent cinematic universe instead.
When McDonagh keeps the film on track, though, Calvary is close to profound, with an elegantly reserved visual style that matches the script's moral ambivalence. Father James has been stationed in a small but diverse town that butts up against a lush but desolate stretch of the Irish coastline, and it's the perfect environmental complement to the waves of moral ambivalence that splash throughout the film — it appears both heavenly and God-forsaken at the same time.
There is very little connective tissue holding the narrative together besides Gleeson's rumpled dignity and barely tethered anxious rage. That opening confessional scene starts the story's ticking clock, but although Father James spends the rest of the film querying his troubled and cynical parishioners (the strong supporting cast includes familiar faces like Chris O'Dowd, Aidan Gillen, M. Emmet Walsh, and Isaach De Bankolé), Calvary is no dunderheaded whodunit, and Father James is no Father Dowling.
Father James claims to know the identity of the aspiring murderer right from the opening scene, yet refuses to share his identity with the authorities. The film is more concerned with a heretofore oblivious priest walking amongst his people, taking stock of a Catholic church that has allowed atrocities to take root, assessing his own complicity of inaction, and weighing the professional obligations of a soul-saver toward a seemingly irredeemable world.