Heavy lifting, hard living in 'Calvary'

RedEye movie critic, music editor

*** (out of four)

You know those annoying movies that make small towns look like actual miniatures, as if they’re some cutesy, perfect refuge from the messy world outside? “The Grand Seduction,” starring Brendan Gleeson and Taylor Kitsch, was like that. It was terrible.

“Calvary” also stars Gleeson, but it’s certainly not trite. What a difference. From writer-director John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard”), “Calvary” presents a tiny Irish coastal community that’s just as shell-shocked by large-scale violence and economic devastation. And with a population that’s only a fraction of a bigger city, the person-to-person impact of increasing fear and nihilism only escalates. Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) sees this from all angles after a man confesses his plans to kill the priest as a statement about good versus evil. Soon James sees hopelessness everywhere, from his daughter (Kelly Reilly) who survived a suicide attempt (and returns at a convenient time) to a butcher (Chris O’Dowd) losing his faith. There’s also a rich jerk (Dylan Moran) who feels no remorse about the means that led to his fortune but thinks he should feel guilty. He wonders: Is there a difference?

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that all this drama moves the man of the cloth to the bottle, and after the misery of “Calvary” a drink doesn’t sound so bad. McDonagh, a whiz at dialogue, frequently allows the meaning to supersede the story; the movie’s on-message at all times, and the effect can be exhausting. Two mysteries (who wants to kill James, and who beat a local woman?) are dangled but not really pursued.

While Gleeson always cuts a large figure, here he’s a captivating, simmering pot, a priest who shows his kind are people too. In this global microcosm, religious folks are no longer trusted and lack of money means lack of future means lack of purpose. There are too many places that know how that feels. How do we live like this? How should we die? The many good questions of “Calvary” resonate mostly because they have no clear answer, and even the attempts at resolution are hard to swallow.

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