“Calvary” is a very Irish movie. And that means it features more than a few mainstays that have long since become clichés. Lots of liquor? Check. A wife with a black eye? Check. A good, yet conflicted, alcoholic priest? Check. The various abuses doled out by the church he represents? Check. And on and on. Why a movie stuffed with so many things we've seen before remains enjoyable is usually hard to define. What gives a film that magic touch that seems to flow effortlessly from the screen to the viewer?
But in “Calvary” there's a good reason for...well, the movie being watchable. Enjoyment is the wrong word for the experience here. This is modern Ireland at its bleakest, and all the humor is firmly rooted in this sensibility.
Anyway, the good reason is the always remarkable Brendan Gleeson, who plays Father James, a priest in a small Irish community whose life is threatened while he's hearing confessions. The confessee tells James that his life will end in one week, next Sunday as payment for the abuses he suffered as a child. He figures killing a bad priest doesn't harm the church, but killing a good, innocent one will deal it a heavy blow. Gleeson knows who his would-be murderer is. We do not. That gives quite the extra edge to the interactions with the various village characters that Father James desperately tries and mostly fails to counsel.
There's little sympathy for the church itself, or for its flock, most of whom seem lost after their collective disillusionment with it and their shepherds. But oh, what a flock. There's Chris O'Dowd of “Bridesmaids,” and “The IT Crowd” who plays against type as a butcher and cuckolded husband. Aidan Gillen, famed for playing Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger on “Game Of Thrones,” brings his comic, smarmy charm to his atheist doctor, and Dylan Moran of “Shaun Of The Dead” is a rich, amoral finance type. Some of their problems are comic, some darker, and most are downright disturbing.
Then there's Father James's estranged, troubled daughter, who has come to stay with him after a failed suicide attempt. Oh, and it seems like everyone in Ireland knows the proper procedure for a successful suicide. Maybe Father James is no exception, since his hesitation to take strong steps to preserve his own life could be seen as a suicide in itself.
Throughout it all, Gleeson has the rounded shoulders of a man who must be more than a man in order to bear the burden of an entire town's sins and somehow keep his faith in God and humanity.
But for all that, the lost sheep here do seem to need the guidance and greater meaning their church once provided in spite of its sins, even if none of them will admit to themselves. Many people aren't strong enough to bear the idea that we may be alone in the universe, and the village's residents are no exception. Father James may embody the best of what his church is capable of, but “Calvary” still refuses to allow its audience to forget that all of the church's wounds are of its own infliction.
The movie is all the more remarkable due to the fact that writer-director John Michael McDonagh previously did the same for “The Guard,” where Brendan Gleeson was also front and center on the other side of the spectrum as a charming, enjoyably corrupt and unorthodox cop. And if “Calvary” can get someone like me to root for a priest to keep his faith and purity, I don't see how anyone else could resist it. However, it could've used some characters that were more worth investing in, as well as a little less reliance on stories we've seen before.