'Calvary' Is a Fascinating Piece of Summer Movie Counterprogramming

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This weekend's movies offer a raucous good time in the form of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. If you're in the mood for something completely different, however, seek out John Michael McDonagh's Calvary. This, after all, is a movie that opens with a disembodied voice telling a priest, played by Brendan Gleeson, in a confessional: "I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old." The voice, a victim of sexual abuse, vows to murder the coming Sunday. "There's no point in killing a bad priest," the voice says. "But killing a good one..." 

One might suspect the rest of the movie charts the priest's attempts to find out who visited him in that confessional and prevent his killing, but nothing about McDonagh's movie is that obvious. Instead, Father James goes about his business methodically, knowing full well who is making a threat on his life.  The threat, meanwhile, coincides with the arrival of Father James' daughter (Kelly Reilly)—he was married before he joined the priesthood—who is recovering from a suicide attempt.

The movie, certainly, is heavy, but it's also imbued with a touch of the dark humor at which McDonagh (whose previous film was The Guard) and his brother Martin (In Bruges) excel. The cast of characters, who each wrestle with faith in their own ways, are messed up and, at times, amusing. Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones' Littlefinger) plays an atheistic doctor who relishes challenging Father James. His utterance of the word "gobbledygook" is marvelous. Not all of them are funny. Gleeson's son Domhnall is terrifying as a serial killer Father James visits in prison. Gleeson's performance, meanwhile, is restrained and will likely be under-appreciated as the year continues. 

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 McDonagh has been adamant that he is making a movie about "a good priest rather than a bad one," as he said at a press conference last week, and in a New York Times profile Cara Buckley explained that McDonagh wasn't interested in creating an antihero. "There's too much irony in movies these days," McDonagh said during the conference. "I'm guilty of it myself, but the intention was to get away from that, and have a completely sincere leading character."

But while Father James is certainly, at his root, a good man, he's by no means a perfect man, or for that matter a perfect priest. His advice is much more spirit of the law than letter of the law. (He encourages a sexually frustrated young man to try porn.) The movie does not condemn the Catholic Church, nor does it celebrate it. The horrors clergy inflicted on so many children are present and not to be ignored. McDonagh doesn't end with a clear message, but he also seems to advocate the power of forgiveness above all else. Calvary is depressing at times, yes, though not completely bleak. There is humanity in nearly everyone on screen. 

Calvary is much too ponderous to be described as a breezy summer movie outing, but if it's at your disposal you should certainly sink your teeth into it. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.