“I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues," Father James says in director John Michael McDonagh’s second film “Calvary,” an Irish mystery-comedy hybrid. Echoing Montgomery Clift's Father Logan in Alfred Hitchcock's 1953 thriller "I Confess," the vested protagonist exists in a fine tradition. Played with a serious face by sophomore McDonagh collaborator Brendan Gleeson, the virtuous Father James represents a dramatic shift not only from the paradigm of leading men in current cinema; his story also diverges from the pigeonhole dug for the director by the smashing success of McDonagh’s first film "The Guard," which premiered at Sundance in 2011 to great fanfare.
The climate following the new movie's premiere last January during the Sundance Film Festival, however, contained a far more subdued tone. While the silence suggested the somber tone of the film disappointed some—perhaps they came for Gleeson to rehash the foul-mouthed cop he embodied like an aging, Irish Jason Statham in "The Guard"—McDonagh's second film assuredly does not. Where "The Guard" excelled as a straightforward black comedy, "Calvary" takes a leap of faith into uncharted territories of sincerity for the director, and for the most part emerges unscathed.
The movie opens with a biblical-scale shocker, when an unexpected visitor enters the confessional in Father James' County Sligo church and divulges the dirty details of a sex abuse trauma from his childhood. Though he suffered at the hands of another father, the confessor pledges to murder James' good priest by the end of the week, just for the ironic kicks. "Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one," he says. This irreverent vow of revenge kicks off a comedy of errors that dominates the first third of the film as James attempts to narrow down the list of possible culprits—only to be obstructed by his good nature. If no good deed goes unpunished, then "Calvary" makes a prison cell of James' small-town parish, which contains a bawdy cast of characters with such a pressing need for absolution that they keep the priest from the little matter of tending to his own death sentence.
Intent on tarnishing the last intact relic of Irish Catholic dominance in a town of crumbling, pillared edifices, each parishioner seems equally likely to commit murder. There's local floozy Veronica (Orla O'Rourke of the British television series "Strike Back"), who updates James on her adulterous appointments with lover Simon Asamoah (Isaach de Bankolé, "Casino Royale"), much to the indifference of her husband Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd, most recently in "The Sapphires" and "Bridesmaids"), who just may have inflicted the nasty welt on her face anyway. Mocking the clergymen is something of a local sport: When the town's tycoon Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) asks James up to his requisite big-house-on-a-hill, James believes it's to forgive the speculator of his financial sins. Really, the man just wants to show off the Holbein he proudly purchased with embezzled funds.
The arrival of James' fragile and insightful daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly, playing the opposite role to her venomous turn as Caroline Bingley in the 2005 "Pride and Prejudice") forces the priest to begin to ponder his impending death, ushering a shift in tone towards the dramatic, even tragic. The genre might sound all wrong for McDonagh — this is the writer, after all, who penned scenes in "The Guard" that placed a straight-faced Mark Strong in an aquarium musing that "Sharks soothe me," and a would-be assassin prefacing a hit with a discussion over chips and guacamole. But the delightful subversion of police procedural tropes in "The Guard" only exhibits the capacity for repurposing genre that McDonagh accomplishes so skillfully in a different manner here. "Calvary" expertly adapts a hybrid of the small-town whodunit with religious drama that applies shades of Robert Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest" to McDonagh’s cheeky wordplay.
The feat is nudged along by Patrick Cassidy's sweeping score, which vaults choral arrangements and string numbers across the theater in a panoramic sound design that mimics church acoustics. Larry Smith's cinematography adds a picturesque quality to the Sligo seashore and sculpted cliffs, whose visual poetry plays against the cynicism of its characters.
Even as it delivers an emotional wallop, not every moment of "Calvary" goes down smoothly, as comedic scenes transition somewhat abruptly to tragic moments and the final reveal never reaches the heights of its Hitchockian inspirations. Uneven as "Calvary" may be at times, McDonagh never changes course from portraying the core of Father James' troubles while exploring the predominance of detachment in our sardonic, mediated culture. If his critique manifests in one image in “Calvary,” it's this: Father James watching a young man rest his elbows on a coffin as he talks to a friend, without considering that the surface beneath him contains the bones of a person once loved.
A version of this review ran during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. "Calvary" opens in limited release this Friday.