Stations of the Cross: Calvary 

Directed by John Michael McDonagh

No one likes a saint, not in these high days of anti-heroes and irony. If you’re going to include them, better run them and their compassion through the mud of cynicism and disaffection. This seems to be the trick—or, rather, the earnest subterfuge—John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson use in Calvary, a uniquely sincere film and surprising follow-up to their hit action-comedy, 2011’s The Guard.

You could almost call it a sort of modern-day story of Job, the good-hearted Irishman Father James (Gleeson) besieged by a hamlet full of hedonists, cynics, and nihilists: the cuckolded butcher (Chris O’Dowd), his philandering wife (Orla O’Rourke), a morbid, cocaine-snorting doctor (Aidan Gillen)—general no-goodniks who respond to the sight of the local church caught in flames by flatly informing James, “Your church is on fire.”

But Father James is not plagued by the whims of divine gamesmanship. No, quite unlike Job, he is overwhelmed by a modern, worldly set of maladies: doubt, distrust, desire, and, crucially for James, a vengeance that cannot forgive. He has been given seven days to prepare himself for death, threatened with murder by an unseen local in the dark of a confessional. Like so many moments in the movie, the scene starts outs bawdy before then becoming painful and wrenching. “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old,” the voice tell James, calmly going on to explain that he seeks to avenge five years of repeated sexual assault from a vile, now dead priest by killing a live, good one. Gleeson plays his character with soft, towering grace, the sort that comes from a person of faith and which, when put to the test, makes for a powerful examination of the worth of being good.

All the while, the days tick away. What starts off as a wickedly dark comedy overlaps into an unexpected morality play—seven days of mounting tribulations. Unfortunately, the countdown conceit doesn’t work. Too many elements and storylines move with differing tempos, the moral half more deliberate than the comedic one, and both of them at a snail’s pace compared to its mortal clock. One hour and forty minutes is perhaps not enough room for all the moving parts, which makes for an ending that feels a bit hurried and uneventful. But when it does come, it becomes apparent that McDonagh and Gleeson have been pulling the wool over our eyes, concealing a magnanimous heart that had been there all along, and which unabashedly longs for a better world, even if it is full of cranks and baddies like those in this town.

Opens August 1


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