FATHER JAMES LAVELLE (Brendan Gleeson) is in his confessional when he learns he's going to be killed. A man—unseen to us—sits in the shadows and speaks in a calm, strong voice hardened by years of anger. When he was a boy, the man says, a Catholic priest abused him; now the man wants revenge. Killing a guilty priest, the man says, isn't enough: He's going to kill an innocent one. In one week's time, he's going to kill Father Lavelle.
Father Lavelle listens. The man leaves. Calvary takes place over the following week.
In 2011, John Michael McDonagh wrote and directed The Guard, a clever buddy cop flick starring Gleeson and Don Cheadle. Only McDonagh's second feature, Calvary strikes into far darker territory. Father Lavelle's parish is small, surprisingly mean-spirited, and the sort of place where, for better or worse, everyone knows everyone—from the sneering town doctor (Aidan Gillen) to the blue-collar butcher (Chris O'Dowd) to a reclusive writer (M. Emmet Walsh). When Father Lavelle's daughter (Kelly Reilly) comes to town—her arms freshly bandaged from a suicide attempt—one senses her visit is the most exciting thing to happen to the villagers in years. But they don't know what Father Lavelle knows—and Father Lavelle's days are disappearing quickly.
Gleeson's phenomenal performance aside—between this and The Guard, it's tempting to want McDonagh and Gleeson to always work together—Calvary hits the hardest in the details. With occasional brutality and an increasingly claustrophobic sense of dread, the gorgeously shot Calvary pushes on, Father Lavelle's exchanges loaded with paranoid menace and corrosive humor. Violence, both physical and verbal, ratchets up; Father Lavelle, once good-natured and approachable, can only shoulder the weight of his looming death for so long before starting to see himself, his town, and his faith differently. Veering between ominous portent and the odd twists of village life, Calvary is neither an easy film to watch nor a cheerful one. It is, however, excellent.