The very first words spoken in Calvary are from an unseen character in confession:

“I first tasted semen when I was 7 years old.”

It’s certainly a startling opening line.

The man confesses to Father James (played by Brendan Gleeson) that he was orally and anally raped for several years as a child by a Catholic priest. But he’s not interested in getting revenge on the priest who raped him. He’s dead now anyway. There’s no point in killing a bad priest. No, he wants to kill a good priest. The man tells Father James that he is going to kill him because he has done nothing wrong.

An innocent life for the loss of his innocence.

Father James has a week to get his affairs in order and make his peace with God. The man says he will kill him on Sunday down at the beach. Father James definitely knows this man and recognizes him as a member of his parish. While he can see his face, the man’s face remains unseen by the audience. Don’t worry, the voice is distinctly distorted to ensure ambiguity and maintain the mystery.

Father James

The first 5 minutes of the film focuses only on Brendan Gleeson’s face and his reaction to this man telling him that he’s going to kill him this Sunday. Gleeson gives a great acting performance going through the gamut of emotions as Father James tries to process and understand what this man is saying.

Is he serious or is this an idle threat? Why does he want to kill him?

Would telling the authorities violate his sacred oath as a priest?

You cannot expect a more intriguing set-up than essentially developing a countdown of the days leading to impending doom. Immediately, the tone is established and the story is injected with tension. Unfortunately, Calvary doesn’t quite capitalize on this thrilling, suspenseful introduction. Calvary suffers from a roving pace that takes several stops along the way to contemplate life and the importance of our relationships.

To the credit of Calvary and writer-director John Michael McDonagh, the movie is always interesting.


During the week that Father James has to prepare for Sunday, he continues all his priestly duties visiting parishioners and throwing out life lessons. One of the aspects of Calvary that makes it enjoyable is the cast of colorful supporting characters. Aidan Gillen (best known as Tommy Carcetti from The Wire and Littlefinger from Game of Thrones) is outstanding as the sick, twisted, and often sadistic Dr. Frank Harte. Chris O’Dowd is wonderful as gleeful Jack Brennan who may or may not have hit his ex-wife. Isaach De Bankolé is equally good in his small role as Simon—a silently dangerous man who now dates Jack’s ex-wife. Dylan Moran is fucking magnificent as eccentric rich guy Michael Fitzgerald. The man literally takes a framed piece of art off his wall so he can piss all over it. Killian Scott is a name that I now know after his hilarious performance as Milo Herlihy—a young man who wants to join the Army to quench his thirst for killing after not getting laid. It’s also nice to see character actor M. Emmet Walsh still alive and working.


But holy fuck, Domhnall Gleeson is the best supporting actor in Calvary as Freddie Joyce. Domhnall is convincingly creepy and slightly menacing as a serial killer on death row. And his awful haircut just completes the look. If Domhnall’s last name is familiar, that is because he is the son of Brendan Gleeson. Their characters (Father James and Freddie Joyce) share maybe two scenes, but Domhnall steals the show from dad during their time together. It is a rather remarkable father-son acting performance.

Unfortunately, the movie spends too much time delving into the relationship between Father James and his daughter, Fiona, who is fresh off an unsuccessful suicide attempt. While it provides more existential fruit, I felt that this storyline fell flat. I don’t blame Kelly Reilly because she tried her best playing Fiona. But the character herself doesn’t come across as mildly interesting. She did not need to occupy more screen time than the other supporting characters. Why is she worth more of my time than the entertaining mish-mash of misfits, misanthropes, and miserable fucks that are Father James’ parishioners?

Kelly Reilly

Although the obsession on the father-daughter relationship doesn’t ruin Calvary, every scene they share kills the momentum and grinds the pace to a shrieking halt. By cutting 10-15 minutes of those scenes, Calvary immediately becomes a more enjoyable movie. As currently constructed, this Irish film serves as a perfect encapsulation of Ireland. Like many Irish people, Calvary is beautiful, bleak, bitter, angry, murderous, darkly humorous, and often dramatic while prone to drunken fits of rage and rambling.

Even as an often agnostic and occasional atheist, the religious themes touched upon in Calvary are thought-provoking. In particular, the idea of forgiveness is a central touchstone. Because of the slow calculated paced, Calvary will be overlooked because many will assume the story is dry, boring, and overly serious. But for those fortunate souls who brave the dense slow burn, Calvary will linger in your brain for a while.  For me, it creates many questions about the meaning of life without an overly religious feel.

As with Milo’s conversations with Father James, I can’t say it’s been of much help in terms of providing answers, but I suppose that it’s good to get these types of things out in the open.

Aidan Gillen

4 out of 5 stars

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