Over the course of two feature films apiece, the brothers McDonagh have had interestingly dovetailing careers. Martin was first out of the gate with modern masterpiece In Bruges, which was followed by John Michael’s debut The Guard, a fine effort albeit one arguably too in love with its own smartarse dialogue and colourful countryside saltiness.
However, Martin’s follow-up Seven Psychopaths, while it has its defenders, alienated others with its overcooked cleverness. And now there’s John’s Calvary; right up there with In Bruges.
The ever-reliable Brendan Gleeson is on the form of his life as Father James, a priest in rural Ireland who is surprised by a death threat one morning as he takes confession. Challenged to meet his mystery would-be murderer a week later on the local beach to be shot in lieu of a now-dead paedophile priest, he at first puzzles over this out-of-he- blue murder date.
But as we follow him in the days running up to it, he begins to find a kind of understanding of his predicament, and finally peace. Because Father James, in stark contrast to the rogues and rapists recently seen wearing cassocks in the movies, is a good man, and a good priest, and – like a spiritual Batman – will do whatever his town needs him to. He even dresses in black.
As Gleeson spends what may be his final days tending to his villagers in a variety of ways, Calvary comes together as a terrific medley of tones and styles. It’s got the black comedy that’s been at the core of Irish writing for centuries, but also offers a deadly serious examination of faith and compassion.
It’s a showcase for Gleeson (who must surely be booking seats at every awards ceremony going), but it’s structured around a series of character studies ranging from Chris O’Dowd’s weak butcher and Aidan Gillen’s atheist doctor to Dylan Moran’s depressed banker.
Chief among the supporting players is Kelly Reilly, whose ace performance as James’ troubled daughter (conceived before he took the cloth) manages to disguise how her character doesn’t really go anywhere.
It’s hilarious, but the comedy grounds a straight-faced examination of how compassion and faith can interlink in a secular society. Somehow contriving to be both hopeful and fatalistic, this is a major step up from The Guard – and just maybe the best Irish film ever made.
Anchored by a truly sensational performance from Gleeson, this unexpected blend of passion play, detective story, rural comedy and serious inquiry into faith is destined for classic status.