Scene: a confessional, somewhere in Ireland. The camera stays on Father James while an unseen male, the victim of clergy abuse long ago, speaks in seething tones about having "tasted semen" at a terrifyingly young age. Well, says the momentarily stunned priest. "Certainly a startling opening line."
In one exchange the tone is set: miserable reality countered by gallows humor. These are the first, nerve-wracking moments of writer-director John Michael McDonagh's "Calvary." In swift, clean jabs the premise is established, and Father James' final week on earth is laid out before him. The unseen man, a parishioner whom Father James knows but we do not, informs him he will be killed in a week's time — not because he's guilty of anything, but because he's an innocent representative of an institution responsible for the assault of so many innocents.
How the priest, played by Brendan Gleeson, fills his last days, and what he leaves behind, provides the accumulating dread of "Calvary." A more despairing work than the previous McDonagh-Gleeson collaboration, "The Guard," it approaches the nasty extremes found in the stage and film work of McDonagh's brother, Martin, which is really saying something.
"Calvary" imagines an Irish coastal village where morality, kindness and God's love have all gone on holiday. We meet a loutish butcher, played by Chris O'Dowd, whose battered wife (Orla O'Rourke) takes solace in a variety of affairs, lately with an Ivory Coast newcomer to Ireland (Isaach De Bankole). The priest visits a serial killer in prison (played by Gleeson's son, Domhnall), and in these visits Father James gets the respect he's owed. Everyone else in "Calvary" treats the spiritual leader as a joke, a straw man of the cloth, as if the priest's innate goodness were a threat.
The priest is an odd duck among his kind, having entered the priesthood in middle age. His grown daughter (Kelly Reilly) has coped with severe depression for a long time. McDonagh brings the tensions in this pathetically amusing congregation to a boil in the pub scenes and other gatherings. The story is a whodunit of sorts, but it's closer in its shape to "High Noon," as Father James prepares to confront his assassin.
The acting is excellent, and the cast includes such ringers as M. Emmet Walsh as an avuncular local writer and the great Marie-Josee Croze as one of the few voices of conscience to be heard in this universe. Is the film an image of post-Catholic Ireland or simply Catholic Ireland in the throes of mundane, widespread, death-cackle evil?
When Cormac McCarthy wrote "No Country For Old Men," he stole the title from Irish poet William Butler Yeats. McDonagh's film, which has a glib exterior but an intriguingly complicated interior, argues that County Sligo and thereabouts have become no country for middle-aged priests. Their tormentors have the upper hand, even if Father James gets the snappiest comebacks.
Gleeson carries the film with wonderful, natural authority. He's a little better than the movie itself, which is glib to a fault. But the actor's association with McDonagh has been most fruitful, and I hope it continues and deepens.
"Calvary" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use)
Running time: 1:44
Opens: Friday at AMC River East 21, Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, Century 12 Evanston/CineArts6