On the surface, this is a story about a specific man condemned to die. But this nuanced and multi-layered film makes profound statements about the Catholic church's relevance today, the sex abuse scandal's aftermath and the continued need for good men to perform good works in an unrepentantly sinful world.
In short: Earnest and good-natured Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is told an embittered Catholic church sex abuse victim will kill him in one week.
"Calvary" reteams writer-director John Michael McDonagh and Gleeson, who last worked together on the incredible and surprisingly moving 2010 dramatic comedy "The Guard." And in many respects, Gleeson's honorable Catholic priest is the polar opposite of the crass rural cop he played in "The Guard" -- except both are incredible performances by Gleeson and amazing characters.
"Calvary" presents a Catholic church that has failed its flock, yet, it also reveals the value of an honorable priest's work in saving his congregation. This melancholic drama captures so many conflicting, yet equally valid, emotional truths in one man's journey. A good man is condemned for a crime he did not commit - yet the good man continues to try to perform good works. But the Catholic flock has all but completely abandoned the church - they attend Sunday service, but none live the virtues. The idiosyncratic flock lies, cheats and commits any/all of the major sins - yet the good man continues to try to redeem them. He is needed yet deemed unnecessary. His unwavering faith endures while cynicism overtakes his congregation. "Calvary" is one priest's spiritual and physical atonement for the church's grievous sins.
Gleeson's remarkable performance must absolutely be singled out - and this role will certainly earn Gleeson some consideration come award season. His priest of unbending faith is also allowed to be human - and Gleeson brilliantly delivers a performance that ranges from unyielding resolve and genuine empathy to flashes of righteous judgment and some doubt in humanity. Gleeson never allows Father James to become a cartoonish zealot or victim - he is simply a stoic man who is trying to sincerely do his job.
Perhaps most surprisingly, this thoughtful and dark drama has a grim comedic edge to it. The at-time quirky and well-honed witty dialogue brings enough levity to this brooding story to keep it from falling into despair, while also not feeling out of place. Its pitch-black dark humor is world-weary, bleak and - surprisingly - very hilarious.
For all its strengths, "Calvary" also forgets the dramatic tension of its premise at times. Anyone who misses the opening scene might never know Father James has been threatened with murder at all. "Calvary" is a brilliant character study of a good priest - but it generally falters as a dramatic thriller where the protagonist has been sentenced to die.
Final verdict: "Calvary" masterfully presents an absolute condemnation of the Catholic church - while also presenting a strong argument for the church's necessity in a world that has grown cynical of religion. Its weighty themes and a stand-out performance by Gleeson make "Calvary" one of the stronger films of 2014.
"Calvary" opens in limited release in the U.S. on Aug. 15 and is rated R for sexual references, language, brief strong violence and some drug use.