the pantheon of memorable first lines -- from "Citizen
Kane" to "Goodfellas" and "Patton" -- we can now add
this from John Michael McDonagh's "Calvary," uttered by a parishioner
to his priest in the confession box: "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old."
I believe that is what's known in the Catholic Church as a bitch-slap.
To his credit, the burly, rough-hewn, been-around-the-block priest (Brendan Gleeson) can take a verbal punch. Stunned, he maintains his composure, which is good because what comes next is a lot tougher. The parishioner explains that because of his abuse over several years at the hands of a now-dead priest, abuse that has destroyed his soul, he has decided to kill a priest, and not just any old abusive priest out there but Gleeson's Father James, because what good would killing a bad priest do? A good priest, now that would be something. He even tells Father James when and where he's going to kill him -- on the beach the following Sunday, seven days away.
And so begins a kind of Agatha Christie-meets-Georges-Simenon who-done-it-slash-black-comedy-slash-lamentation by way of Beckett. Make that a who-will-do-it. (Fox Searchlight picked this up out of Sundance.) Father James knows his killer, ostensibly, but we don't, and it could be almost anyone from among the rather strange collection of disaffected locals, among them the butcher (Chris O'Dowd) who has tired of his slutty wife (Orla O'Rourke), who is having a thing with an African immigrant (Isaach De Bankole); a seriously unhappy rich man (Dylan Moran); an aged American writer (the ever-alive M. Emmet Walsh); a police inspector (Gary Lydon) having it off with a cheeky male prostitute (Owen Sharpe); a deeply cynical doctor (Aidan Gillen).
Into this heady dysfunctional mix comes Father James's progeny from an earlier life, his daughter (Kelly Reilly), survivor of a recent suicide attempt. That this f/Father wryly guesses at the reasons for her failure -- slashing her wrists crosswise instead of length-wise -- pretty much says all you need to know about the tone here (if the first line didn't already get you there). As a friend said exiting the theater, "Only an Irishman could have told this tale." And told it so well, with so much dark wit.
They do have the gift of wicked gab, the McDonaghs do. (Brother Martin is the noted playwright and director of "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths.") As well as the gift of structure and pacing, fine collaborators in cinematographer Larry Smith and composer Patrick Cassidy, and, of course, Brendan Gleeson. The actor, who starred in both "In Bruges" and John Michael McDonagh's "The Guard" (with "Calvary," two-thirds of a planned trilogy) and as the saying goes, has the map of Ireland on his face, is as good as gold. His Father James, facing the church's many demons as well as his own (alcoholism) in addition to his potential murderer, takes hit after hit, some of them literal. Even his daughter unloads on him for leaving her -- after the death of her mother -- for the church. Sometimes you can't win for trying and Father James suggests that the virtues are undervalued in this modern life. Which virtues, wonders the daughter. Forgiveness, says the father. In the end, that may be all we have, and far better to have it, McDonagh seems to be saying, than all of this witty brutality.
Meanwhile, the days pass, one by one. There are serious warnings, one of them particularly heinous. Father James decides to leave town, to avoid this unnecessary ending, but can't do it. He stays to face the verdict, the rage, and on Sunday he walks down to the beach in his cassock. A boy from the village, a bright, sardonic boy who might be a young McDonagh, rather theatrically paints a scene of the beach as Father James enters stage right, his would-be killer stage left.
"Calvary," which reverberates long after its viewing, finishes on a note of atonement and forgiveness. The question is, whose, and for whom.