What might not be apparent at first glance is that the new movie Calvary is a mystery.
In the opening scene, an anonymous voice tells a priest during confession that he will kill him in two weeks. The voice also states the time and place.
But before that may or may not happen, writer-director John Michael McDonagh creates and then dissects a village filled with colorful yet troubled characters. And he does this while also delivering a large helping of black humor.
This ticking-clock scenario may resemble High Noon, but at least in that classic Western, audiences knew who was heading to town to gun down Gary Cooper. Here, any one of the male natives of Sligo, Ireland, could be out to murder Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson).
The disembodied voice says he was abused by a priest as a child. Now, for revenge, he plans to gain notice for his subsequent pain by murdering a good priest.
Meanwhile, the good father has his own problems in the forms of a shrinking parish, other bodily threats, poor church attendance, a general lack of respect from everyone, and a daughter (Kelly Reilly) by a marriage that came before his ordination returning home after a failed suicide attempt. In his daily local travels, Lavelle encounters his would-be assailant several times, but the audience never learns of this until later.
McDonagh deftly sustains our interest with Lavelle’s attendance to everyday matters. The village becomes a jigsaw puzzle, with various pieces fitting together, all important to the overall picture. It seems everyone connects to everyone else in some way, with Lavelle being one of the few connecting threads.
In addition to the ominous death threat, a sense of doom lingers over Lavelle and the village. Various circumstances suggest that the priest’s church is dead and no longer has any influence over Sligo or the behavior of its natives.
Lavelle deftly handles his problems with the assistance of McDonagh’s consistently witty and barbed script. Hardly a line of dialogue passes without a bite or a smile, or both.
Gleeson brings a stoic sadness to his role, a part specifically written for him by McDonagh after their last collaboration on the criminally overlooked 2011 film The Guard. Here, the movie, like the village Sligo, needs a strong presence, and Gleeson fills it even if the woeful parishioners don’t recognize it.
BOO ALLEN is an award-winning film critic who has worked for the Denton Record-Chronicle for more than 20 years. He lives in Dallas.
Rated R, 100 minutes
Opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.