'Calvary' is just a whodunit with pseudo-biblical pretensions

'Calvary' has weighty, acerbic dialogue that's difficult to buy into, but actor Brendan Gleeson does deliver a wonderful performance as an Irish priest. 

Fox Searchlight/AP
This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Kelly Reilly, left, and Brendan Gleeson in a scene from "Calvary."

The title of “Calvary” makes it clear that this is a movie straining for religiosity.

Set above the remote and rocky cliffs of County Sligo, the film stars Brendan Gleeson as the local priest, Father James. In the first scene, set inside a Roman Catholic confessional, Father James hears a man on the other side of the covered window describe his sexual abuse as a boy at the hands of a local priest, now deceased. The man tells Father James that no good would have come from killing that priest anyway, since he was a bad man. The only way to make a statement is to kill an innocent man – a good priest. Father James. He gives Father James a week to get his affairs in order before his preordained execution the following Sunday.

In the course of the ensuing week, Father James, who we are led to believe recognizes the voice of the would-be killer, goes about his priestly duties without attempting to bring in the police. We meet an array of townspeople, and many of the men are positioned as potential suspects. The film, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, morphs into a folksy Irish mash-up of Agatha Christie and St. Augustine.

The possible killer could be the cuckolded local butcher (Chris O’Dowd), who may have beaten up his runaround wife (Orla O’Rourke). Or it could be the atheist doctor (Aiden Gillen) or perhaps the male prostitute consort (Owen Sharpe) of the local police inspector (Gary Lydon). Maybe it’s the rich-but-unhappy bachelor (Dylan Moran) or the sex-crazed loner (Killian Scott). Just about the only guy who isn’t a candidate is a crotchety, reclusive American novelist (M. Emmett Walsh, whose wheedling bray sounds like no one else’s).

All of these people have some kind of ax to grind against religion. Father James, burly and bearded, accepts their disenchantments with worldly grace. As he tells his distraught daughter (Kelly Reilly) – Father James was married before joining the priesthood – “there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.”

Certainly there’s ample talk about sins in “Calvary.” The film is constantly forcing us to question the sheer equanimity of Father James’s faith. He even visits a former parishioner who is in prison for murder and – get this – cannibalism. The priest’s credo: “The limits to His mercy have not been set.”

McDonagh writes very weighty, acerbic dialogue, and I didn’t buy into most of it. Father James, in fact, is the least preachy person in the bunch. Everyone he encounters in his week-long odyssey throws ornately literate pronouncements at him – and us. Isn’t there at least one person in the village who is deeply religious? No, everyone here challenges Father James, whose faith, if not his patience, is never in question.

Gleeson is a wonderful actor and he keeps a lid on the blarney. He manages to convey a lot – fear, anger, compassion, rue – with only the slightest of squints and frowns. But he’s still the center of a cooked-up cavalcade of souls. McDonagh may think he’s created a deeply troubling spiritual journey, but it comes across more like a whodunit with pseudo-biblical pretensions. Grade: B- (Rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence, and some drug use.)

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