“That’s certainly a startling opening line!” is the strikingly dismissive response of a priest taking confession, after an unseen speaker tells of first tasting semen when just seven years old; a declaration fired with the intensity of an automatic rifle and its connotations blatantly obvious. The priest tries “to start again” but this is more than the usual ritualistic mitigation exercise, that familiar Catholic Church speciality when it comes to institutional sexual abuse. This is a priest with sincerity – a commanding moral authority – and every line of his craggy face speaks of immediate regret; somebody who had simply been caught off guard.
But this is of no concern to the speaker. His abuser is dead and he wants revenge – or closure perhaps – and, more than anything, to be heard, and what better way of achieving catharsis, he supposes, than to kill a ‘good’ priest. He is here to serve a notice of execution – literally – and gives the priest seven days to put his house in order.
It’s chilling stuff, setting the tone – jet black – for this comedy drama, which plays for laughs, gallows humour style, on the rural Irish coast and feels more like the apocalypse than a Calvary-like sacrifice of the film’s title; a contemporary biblical noir with an absurdist edge that, nevertheless, takes itself very, and for some tastes, too seriously.
Brendan Gleeson – is there a better actor around? – returns from John Michael McDonagh’s debut film, ‘The Guard’, for this follow up and plays the priest, Father James, who knows his tormentor – we don’t – and continues with his duties regardless. He has a worldliness, a hard earned wisdom, having come to the priesthood late as a recovering alcoholic and still grapples with the temptation of the demon drink at extreme moments.
It creates an ambiguity that complicates his relationship with the more disruptive parishioners, played by an array of Irish talent. Aidan Gillen, Orla O’Rourke and Gary Lydon bring a sneering cynicism to characters who have thrown in the metaphorical towel, accepting a living damnation where ‘mortal sin’ is an an inverted virtue and a Godless vision of society becomes a political weapon without a cause; a self-defeating nihilism. Gleeson’s own son, Domhnall, appears briefly as a naive cannibal murderer – the other end of the scale from Hannibal Lecter – and when the priest grants him an audience in the nick it’s electrifying; both having an absolute conviction in the purity of their worldview that cuts across the light/dark binary opposites and, at times, they come close to providing a mirror image of each other in ways that are unexpected – often non-verbal – and highly disturbing. And Stand-up comedian, Dylan Moran, catches the eye as a fiendish banker, Michael Fitzgerald, who contemptuously pisses on a Holbein but secretively craves redemption amongst his self-loathing.
Less good, are scenes between the priest and his troubled daughter that appear a little forced and distracting, constantly running the risk of staginess, and the use of the priest’s dog, who was never going to make it to the film’s end, as plotting shorthand.
This is a film of huge ambition, deconstructing, well, everything and not limited to a satirical take on the Catholic Church or wider Irish society and renders any ‘who-will-do-it’ curiosity irrelevant. It’s less even and, every once in a while, cinematic, than his razor sharp debut, the best film to date from either of the McDonagh brothers, but it still holds together notwithstanding the odd gripe.
And it’s superbly lit by cinematographer, Larry Smith, who heightens the threatening seascape entirely in keeping with the rest of the film’s Gothic spirit without overdoing it.
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