"That's a startling opening line."
And so Calvary begins with that bleak statement by an anonymous confessor to protagonist priest Father James Lavelle (Brandan Gleeson), who replies with the characteristic black humor and self-awareness that sets the tone for director John Michael McDonagh's latest.
Although unknown to us, Father James recognizes the voice on the other side of the wall that tells the Irish priest very calmly that he plans to kill him in 7 days for the sexual abuse he received as a child. He will do so not because he believes Father James to be guilty of the same crimes, but merely because he believes the action will have more meaning since Father James is a good priest.
McDonagh's writing can seem a bit heavy-handed at times, revealing a bit of a thematic literary bent more than a directorial ease. There is a motif of the number 7 -- the appearance in the opening line, the timeframe of a week, and the seven sins that are represented by the seven members of the parish who are all suspects in the movie whom we are introduced to in the very next scene (this last part is a theory of mine that bears a rewatching of the movie to confirm). Seven, however, does not include Father James himself. In a later scene, he has a rather disturbing dream that flashes through all the possible members of the church who are set to kill him and he sees his own face in there. And this is another motif through the story, which is touched on in the last scene, when Father James mentions how his one regret in life is that he never got to finish Moby Dick. Like Captain Ahab, he is bound tightly to his fate, unable to prevent it even as he sees his demise coming.
Brendan Gleeson carries the movie magnificently, bringing nuance and subtlety to his role. As we traverse the following week in the movie, it becomes a sort of character study of the priest and all of the members of the town as much as a whodunnit as we try to figure out who could have been the voice from the opening scene. The movie could use some tightening and some smoother transitions, but as the story grants and asks for forgiveness, perhaps we should allow McDonagh some redemption for what is otherwise a compelling look at the church post-sexual scandals. It's a dark theme that winds throughout the movie, and we see what happens when the characters are unable to forgive each other or the church as an institution.
McDonagh has a unique eye for space and setting scapes in relation to his actors. A notable performance is also by Gleeson's son, Domnhall Gleeson whose one scene resonates past its allotted time in the story. Calvary has more strength when considered as a literary work, but it's still superior as a cinematic work whose humor and small-town study are laced with an almost oppressive melancholy.