Made in Sligo with Irish money, Calvaryplainly has that acme of American westerns about unequivocal heroes, High Noon, on its mind. It casts the universally idolised actor Brendan Gleeson in the lead, as a good man facing his hour of reckoning with all the weariness of Gary Cooper walking the deserted streets of his small town. Gleeson plays a kind, sardonic rural priest who is told one Sunday in confession that he is to die seven days later in recompense for the sexual abuse of Ireland’s children at the hands of Catholic clergy down the centuries – the death of a good priest being so much more appalling than offing a bad one.
And so Gleeson awaits his grisly appointment, spending time with his notably eccentric parishioners. Calvary’s gruelling central issue of abuse has been enough to quieten much criticism of the film, but in truth, most of the time it is coasting. John Michael McDonagh’s previous movie The Guard (a $20m-grossing black comedy) also brandished a floridly articulate and comic sort of Irish patter and banter very much in a post-Pinter, post-Mamet, post-Tarantino mode. Forgive me for using such old-fashioned, creaky critical terms but the slight datedness of JMM’s writing and approach – that extremely mannered verbal teasing – compels me to use it. This “Irish” version of those rhythms and tones was established by John’s brother Martin (both men, incidentally, were actually born in south London), an accomplished playwright, who in his 2008 film In Bruges took it to a sublime level.
But there are moments and characters in John’s version that tip into the dread arena of the kookie. Self-consciously kookie characters in cinema might go back to Raymond Chandler (people with strange walking sticks and inexplicable accents) but, when pushed, it can feel artistically lazy, fun stuff thrown in for the hell of it to pad things out. In Calvary a guy goes about on a moped wearing a bow tie, a child stands on the beach sketching with the skill of Turner, and a libidinous car mechanic hails inexplicably from Ivory Coast. They all imply a lack of confidence in the story, in what McDonagh is actually trying to say about forgiveness and faith. By the end, that feels suspiciously less important than what he is trying to say about himself as a filmmaker: that he is the kind of guy who goes around noticing things a lot. A guy who understands that, if you look a little closer, life and people are indeed incredibly strange. Which is true. And yet in Calvary they only ever feel superficially strange, or deep. Or sad.