The bearish Brendan Gleeson plays a priest in John Michael McDonagh's "Calvary," but anyone looking for Bing Crosby-fied Irish whimsy is barking up the wrong shillelagh. Its hero -- there's no other word -- is Father James, who came to the priesthood as a widower, and is faced with ministering to a congregation that, in the wake of the Catholic Church's child-abuse scandal, now regards the clergy with derision and contempt. Although innocent of any such crime, James is confronted in the confessional one Saturday by a victim of priestly abuse who promises to kill him in a week -- not because he's guilty, but precisely because he's good.
As the title implies, James, presumably en route to his own execution, will experience a passion of the Christian variety, much of which involves his Sisyphean effort to shepherd a highly dysfunctional flock: Jack (Chris O'Dowd) beats his wife Veronica (Orla O'Rourke), who's sleeping with the local car mechanic (Isaach de Bankolé) and doing cocaine with the cynical doctor (Aidan Gillen). James' daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly), has come home, after a suicide attempt; the wealthy, booze-addled Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) tries, like Satan in the desert, to tantalize our priest with riches. Sex-starved Milo (Killian Scott) wants to join the army so he can kill. And in McDonagh's most outré gesture, he has James make a prison visit to a former student, Freddy Joyce (Gleeson's son, Domhnall), who grew up to be a serial-killer and cannibal and claims that in the act of murder, the killer becomes God. "No, you don't," James roars, his understanding exhausted.
The purpose of "Calvary" is a darkly absurdist one. It doesn't confront church scandal-priestly crime; it stares into the spiritual void that has been left in its wake. What stares back is lurid, soulless and damned.
PLOT During confession, an Irish priest is told he will die in a week, at the hands of a victim of child abuse.
CAST Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Isaach de Bankolé, Chris O'Dowd.
BOTTOM LINE Wryly funny, but profoundly philosophical about the meaning of life in spiritually bankrupt times.