“I first tasted semen when I was seven-years-old,” a voice mutters to Father James (Brendan Gleeson) from the other side of the confession booth. This is the first line of dialogue mentioned in John Michael McDonagh’s latest film Calvary, and it’s a daring line indeed. How is one supposed to respond to that? Especially before they learn its context and why it is being said. This may be a question viewers find themselves asking throughout Calvary. The film itself is very dark and the dialogue can be very strange. At the most dramatic of moments, someone will utter something that is hilarious. Are we supposed to laugh? That’s for you to decide.
Father James is just as taken aback by the aforementioned line of dialogue as we are. The faceless man continues on to explain that as a child, he was raped repeatedly by a priest. Now years later the man has decided to take revenge by killing an innocent, just as he was an innocent as a child. He informs Father James that he will murder him in one week’s time, before standing up and leaving the confession booth. Father James recognizes the voice, but he can’t figure out just who it was. Leading up to the date of his supposed murder, Father James speaks to the townspeople trying to figure out which of them has threatened his life, whilst also dealing with the many issues they present him with. Among the townspeople are Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), whose husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd) beats her and Mechanic Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), who is sleeping with Veronica. There’s also the wealthy alcoholic Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) and the sexually repressed Milo (Killian Scott), who plans to join the army. To make things even more difficult for Father James, he must take care of his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) who has recently tried to kill herself.
The film’s title refers to the site where Jesus Christ was supposedly crucified. It doesn’t take a genius to spell out what that possibly means for our Father James.
As great as the screenplay is, Calvary is entirely Gleeson’s film. He commands the screen throughout every moment of the film, often without saying anything at all. While he has great chemistry with the entire cast, some of his best moments come when he is completely alone on screen.
It takes a very clever writer to perfectly blend drama and dark comedy the way McDonagh does. He showed us that he could do it in his 2011 film The Guard (also starring Brendan Gleeson) and it’s safe to say that he does an even better job in Calvary. The two films are part of what McDonagh calls his “glorified suicide trilogy”, so it will be very interesting to see what he does next.