The Catholic Church has become an easy target for comedians and politicians due to the number of molested children by protected religious figures. Exact numbers will not be reviewed or cataloged, but importantly, an anger persists about how justice has not been forthcoming or stringent as the secular law would demand. Common practice in earlier days had predatory priests transferred and the cycle would repeat. In director John Michael McDonagh‘s powerful film Calvary, Father James played by the thoughtful and magnetic Brendan Gleeson places the sense of justice in a flawed light.
Stakes are established at the film’s outset. Father James is listening to a confession behind a privacy screen. In angry hushed tones, the lay person describes abuses he endured from a priest as a young boy. An ominous portent is disclosed. This man forewarns Father James that he intends to kill him on the following Sunday. He readily acknowledges Father James is not at fault nor has been suspected of any pedophilia, yet believes that “killing an innocent priest makes more of a statement.” The camera stays fixed on Father James’s face without any zooming or cuts during the whole confession and threat. The sound of the sliding window door is heard and the screen goes blank. Immediate associations went to Fred Zinneman‘s western classic High Noon (1952) where retired marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) faces a released convict hellbent on exacting revenge. Under the false hope that the same town folks that he had protected will help defend him, Will ultimately has to contend with Frank Miller and his gang alone. However, what made High Noon memorable is the tension and anxiety found as the clock continues to move forward to the prescribed time. McDonagh uses a different device of earmarking the day as each new morning begins conscious that the audience is intensely bracing themselves for increased worry and possible conflict before the stated meeting at the shoreline. Heightening the drama is the fact that Father James knows or is fairly certain of which individual in his small parish is looking to annihilate him. Despite this information, Father James continues to carry out his spiritual duties and help people.
Adding another curveball to the plot is the backstory that Father James had not begun his career as a priest, but turned to it after the premature death of his wife. A troubled and emotionally fragile daughter (Kelly Reilly) from that union visits her father shortly after the death sentence is pronounced by the unknown (to the audience) man. It becomes quite evident that no character is without suspicion, and there is also a callback to the crushing economic fall in Ireland that cast majority of the Irish people into dire financial straits while the banks were able to extricate themselves from the astounding debt.
Gleeson as Father James embodies an honest man with vices of his own. He is somewhat of a religious skeptic even though he looks to comfort those around him as a man of the cloth. Father James has his own ire that humanizes the man acting as a priest. It is a refreshing choice to do so.
Turning attention to the scenery, the waves violently splashing against the jetties communicates a relentless force while around the shore there is a spare austerity of life. Father James may have people attending mass, but they all have their own criticism and disaffection from the Catholic Church. McDonagh makes this picture more than merely about a murderous meeting and peels back layers rarely considered. For instance, in analyzing Father James’s open manner and kindness, it begs the question if people are overwhelmed by sins committed to find the true intention of faith and operating in a forgiving way of themselves and others especially. Stripping away how misguided people use and abuse religion in general, the core teachings had and has valid messages.
Leaving the spoilers out, ambiguity remains about the harm levied upon Father James. In particular, the final scene blurred a few ideas, and for that, McDonagh deserves praise at this very strong film. The Academy Awards should come calling for McDonagh and Gleeson.