In the opening minutes of Calvary, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) takes confession from a man who passes on a death sentence: He’ll kill Father Lavelle in one week. The movie that follows is no whodunit—Lavelle knows his would-be assassin—nor does it offer much in the way of life-affirming leave-takings. This is ritual disguised in naturalism, Stations of the Cross acted out along a rocky shore, its vignettes largely one-on-one as every village resident offers tests of patience and faith.
If that sounds a bit heavy-handed, it can be. Calvary is a film in which characters repeatedly declaim one another’s cliches. But there’s an honesty in its circular discussions and resigned bleakness; its preoccupation with whether the Church can recover from its many sins is one the movie wisely never answers. And it takes its title seriously, drawing a stark picture of a town in which everyone—the performatively atheist doctor (Aidan Gillen), the local louche gentry (Dylan Moran), even Lavelle’s visiting daughter (Kelly Reilly)—inhabits a private hell the good Father can likely never touch.
It takes a mountain of an actor to ground a film like this, but The Guard director John Michael McDonagh knew he had one in Gleeson, who gives a career-defining performance. Wringing dark humor from his own despair and battling mounting frustration, he turns every dialogue into a tour de force. (In one of the film’s most haunting scenes, Father Lavelle faces down a murderer—played by his own son Domhnall—whose unburdening steals over Gleeson in nightmarish quiet.) It’s not surprising that Calvary has moments of melodrama, and the darkly-comic tone slips occasionally as things spiral out of control in the village and Lavelle’s clock ticks down. But the impression that lingers is of Gleeson’s making: that of a harrowing, deeply-felt passion play.