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Review: Just too hard to believe in 'Calvary'

Brendan Gleeson does well with an absurd plot as Father James, a priest hunted in an Irish village.
Brendan Gleeson does well with an absurd plot as Father James, a priest hunted in an Irish village.
Published Aug. 19, 2014

Calvary (R) (100 min.) — John Michael McDonagh's bleak movie begins in gripping fashion, in a seaside Irish village where bearish Father James (Brendan Gleeson) hears a chilling confession.

The penitent was sexually abused as a child by a priest, and now wants to kill.

Not the abuser but Father James, because murdering a good priest will get more attention. In seven days, on the beach. It's a date.

Slowly McDonagh's grip loosens, as inevitable questions are asked and not always answered to satisfaction. Father James knows the confessor, and it's explained by a bishop that going to the police wouldn't violate any vows. Why he persists in confidentiality is a bigger mystery than the threatener's easily guessed identity. Calvary becomes a lurid Agatha Christie yarn with something important to say about the church and Ireland that McDonagh can't fully articulate. Pulp keeps getting in the way.

Calvary is then less of a whodunnit than a who'll-do-it, with stilted circumstances flinging suspicion like holy water. The parish is populated almost entirely by morally bankrupt people, each showing contempt for Father James that erupts in violence against the priest, and his in return. It's a preposterous plot, made credible as possible by Gleeson's bearish gravity and mordant wit, hinting Father James might welcome a bullet to escape this crowd.

McDonagh's hodgepodge screenplay does encourage solid work by Kelly Reilly as the widowed priest's troubled daughter, Chris O'Dowd as an abusive butcher and M. Emmet Walsh as a blithely suicidal writer. Then there are the rest, actors stuck with hysterical cliches equally one note and not playing them particularly well. C+ (Select theaters)

Steve Persall, Times movie critic

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