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Last rites


You might want to take a second look at that title. It’s not “Cavalry”—those are the horse-mounted soldiers, a familiar sight from any number of western movies. It’s Calvary, referring to the site in the New Testament where Jesus Christ was crucified.

But as the film unfolds, you may wonder if writer-director John Michael McDonagh intended that confusion. The last-minute arrival of the cavalry in old movies was a deus ex machina so familiar that it remains a recognized cliche. And McDonagh’s film is the story of a man who could use such a rescue. He’s a priest who has one week to live. He knows this because he has been told this in the confession booth by the man who plans to kill him.

Father James (Brendan Gleeson, giving one of the strongest performances in a career not lacking in good work) is not being threatened for anything he has done. Quite the contrary. He’s a good man who came to the priesthood late in life, and he’s seen the darkness: his wife dies young, his daughter has attempted suicide, he himself is a recovering alcoholic. He wants to be of use in the small Irish town where he is stationed. And that is why his killer-to-be has picked him: to exact revenge against bad priests, he will kill a good one to command the world’s attention.

You may or may not buy the set-up—it’s not the only thing about Calvary that is a bit too writerly to work on the big screen. If you allow yourself to be distracted by them, McDonagh’s incessant literary references can also be wearying.

But what is on screen is good enough to overcome all of that. The opening sequence of James listening to his death sentence doesn’t dictate the tone of the rest of the film. His week is framed to us, but not to him: he goes about his duties as he otherwise would, if perhaps with a heightened sense of mission. (Nearly every scene features Gleeson clad in the soutane, the cloak priests traditionally wear to celebrate mass but not for everyday activities.)

His duties consist of visiting with his parishioners, counseling them if he can and listening to them if he can’t. They’re a showy lot played by a top cast: an elderly novelist (M. Emmet Walsh); the local butcher (Chris O’Dowd) who may be beating his wife; the rich man who thinks he can buy forgiveness (Dylan Moran, star of the very funny Brit-com Black Books, a PBS perennial); the cynical doctor who taunts the priest’s faith, played by Aidan Gillen, Game of Throne’s Littlefinger, and an imprisoned serial killer (played by Gleeson’s son Domhnall).

McDonagh, brother of playwright Martin McDonagh, previously directed Gleeson in the more openly comic The Guard (as an Irish cop shepherding American FBI agent Don Cheadle through the investigation of an international drug ring). It may sound grim, but Calvary is not without humor, dark-tinged as it may be. And if it is somewhat schematic, Gleeson and his fellow players bring to life what I presume is McDonagh’s central theme, the importance of forgiveness. As the priest tells his daughter near the end of the film, “There’s too much talk about sin and not enough about virtue.”

PS. Did I mention that it’s all beautifully filmed? It was shot in Ireland, so I assume I didn’t need to.

Watch the trailer for Calvary

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