A lot of critics write about Brendan Gleeson like he’s a guy you could sit down and enjoy a pint with in a pub, all hail-well-fellow-met. But after watching him take Albert Finney’s version of Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm and then reconstitute it in an Emmy Award-winning performance in Into the Storm, I know he’s a complete contrarian. Finney, once as pretty as Farrell or Depp, only with chops, is devoid of all vanity in his dotage, Finney is deliriously happy to strut his fishbelly-pale chubby white cosmopolitan stuff around. Not Gleeson, his Winston is grumpier, tighter wound and, well, more English. Gleeson: Salt of the earth, I think not.
In his newest film, Calvary, Brendan Gleeson plays a Catholic priest who inhabits a rustic Irish village like a bereaved hippopotamus forced through historic circumstance to take anger management classes. Gleeson’s Father James is not a cruel man, but he is unquestionably brutal and his village, romantically rustic to the visitor is simply a vulgar dot on the map in the provinces to an educated man exiled from his past. The beach looks dirty, the waves froth up a sort of dun-gray. A part of it all, almost a monument, Father James moves slowly, his every plodding step a push back against nature. Hefting around his mighty thorax as he defies the wind and rain, his red and gray beard at one in woolliness with his ankle-length cassock, he exists among his village parishioners yet is never one of them.
Unlike Poland, where the church manages to retain a ruthless chokehold, the old Irish Catholic clichés are fading rather than dying. Father James shouldn’t feel insulted, but he does. Tortured by a young generation dithering between belief, apathy and a kind of bored existentialism in between, Father James sees the village’s edifice cracking everywhere. Divorce has been legal since 1997 and now abortion. Worse is the unspeakable: Generations of pederast priests protected by a last generation who believe that the church and the culture are one and the same. With attendance in church having dropped by two-thirds, Father James represents far more than the sum of his parts to the villagers who fear, loathe and idolize him simultaneously.
So, with the same old dichotomy of ambivalence to tell his tale upon, where does the writer-director John Michael McDonagh begin? Where but the confessional? From the booth, a mysterious stranger regales us with the horrors of his being used as a priest’s fuck toy from the age of seven until he became useless at twelve. Skipping the tenets of Jesus and his apostles, the man wants Old Testament-style retribution. In a week, on a Sunday, he insists, the flagrantly innocent Father James will meet and greet him on the shore and he will commit murder against an innocent in order to exact perfect vengeance against the Church. “There’s no point in killing a bad priest,” the man says without bothering to stifle a giggle.
The rest is a sort of farcical private-eye noir as Father James works the village, sorting through the dross of humanity to filter out the voice of his wannabe murderer. At this point the comedic situational aspects kick in as we meet the suspect locals. The nasty doctor (Aidan Gillen), a porn-addicted lonely geek-type played with a beautiful empathetic touch by Killian Scott, the flamingly queer hustler (Owen Sharpe), the ridiculous ex-pub owner (Pat Shortt), the ultra-obnoxious rich, alcoholic local bailiff (Dylan Moran), the befuddled butcher played by Chris O’Dowd with a panache I haven’t seen since his Doc Martin days, and the sexy black stud (Isaach De Bankolé), who could definitely do way better than shagging the butcher’s zombie wife (Orla O’Rourke).
McDonagh has beaucoup fun defacing all the clichés and stereotypes of the Emerald Isle. Essentially, beyond brave, beautiful Father James the village is filled with, umm, village idiots. Even the exiled Irish-American novelist (M. Emmett Walsh), living his tax-free reclusive, paradise of an artist’s existence talks a load of pseudo-intellectual shit. “My whole life is an affectation,” he says.
Suffice to say, everybody is a fool, so that the brilliant Gleeson makes us adore the integrity and gravitas of Father James as a man, rather than the unbridled generations of corruption he represents. As Father James shows no desire to alter his fate, we may not canonize him at the end, but we respect him as all human.