The biblical theme of a messiah dying for our sins gets a ripped-from-the-headlines workout in “Calvary,” a weighty Irish indie from writer-director John Michael McDonagh and lead Brendan Gleeson (“Harry Potter,” McDonagh’s “The Guard”). Taking its title from the site where Christ was crucified, the controversy-courting film has a lot of Catholic church business (and doctrine) on its mind, and veers from poetically eloquent to jarringly blunt in hashing it all out.
The provocative discourse frequently elevates the movie above what’s ultimately a familiar pedigree — arthouse import showing us around a picturesque British Isles outpost exaggeratedly populated by characters who are odd, if not flat-out messed-up. But the mood also keeps some mischievous touches from providing the black-comic relief that McDonagh intends, and even slightly undermines the suspense.
The movie opens with Gleeson’s sage Father James in a confessional, listening to the unseen parishioner on the other side of the screen reveal in very graphic terms that a priest repeatedly molested him as a boy. (“Certainly a startling opening line,” says Gleeson’s distressed character, in a darkly self-referential bit of dialogue.) The man is murderously vengeful, and with his old tormentor long dead, he’s deliberately targeting an innocent clergyman to make his statement more shocking and impactful. Some supporters of sexual abuse survivors have charged McDonagh with turning victim into villain. Mostly, it feels like it’s left to us to judge.
The would-be killer gives Father James a week to get his affairs in order. But, oh, what a bear of a week it turns out to be. The once-married priest needs to tend to his melancholy daughter (Kelly Reilly, “Flight”), recently driven to a suicide attempt by the same trials that steered Father James toward his present calling. Then there’s town vamp Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), whose black eye seems like Samaritan territory — but good luck getting straight answers from her husband (Chris O’Dowd) or her immigrant fling (Isaach De Bankolé). A wealthy stock market swindler (Dylan Moran), beneath all his clergy-disrespecting hauteur, yearns for life guidance. An elderly, ailing novelist (M. Emmet Walsh) wonders if Father James might be able to procure a gun for him, just in case his health gets much worse. An imprisoned serial killer (Gleeson’s son Domhnall, recently seen in “About Time” and barely recognizable here) wants absolution.
Father James then has to defend his prison visit, however ambivalently, to a sardonic local doctor (Aidan Gillen) and the rest of the mouthy crowd down at the pub. Buzzed or not, there’s no congregation more comfortable than this lot with dropping f-bombs and unexpurgated musings around a man of the cloth.
The prison scene feels like familiar drama raised several notches by the skilled, subtle expressiveness in the elder Gleeson’s performance — repressed fury here, and elsewhere empathy, tenderness, disgust, and despair. The fresher exchanges come in a heart-to-heart between father and daughter on suicide and spirituality, and in an edgy conversation between Father James and a misfit youth (Killian Scott) as to whether military service builds character or something darker. You may well find yourself getting so wrapped up in it all that the film’s ominously ticking clock becomes an afterthought, even with day-of-the-week chapter headings to remind us. “Calvary” is often wound tightest in the most unexpected places.Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.