The term "Calvary" refers not only to the site of Christ's crucifixion as described in the Bible but also more generally to an experience of extreme mental suffering. Both meanings resonate deeply in Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh's harrowing film. Calvary's opening scene sets the story in motion: A good priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), hears an anonymous confession that rapidly transforms into a threat on his life. The penitent says he will murder James on the following Sunday, not for anything the priest has done but as a symbolic response to past sins inflicted by the Catholic church. The result is a fresh take on a familiar form — a murder mystery about a murder that hasn't happened yet.
Calvary counts down the days as James makes the rounds in his small village on the western coast of Ireland. Trying to identify the murderer -in-waiting is an engaging task, and it's a device to introduce the cornucopia of confrontational cynics, misfits and miscreants that populate the town. It seems that everyone has a bone to pick with the priest or the church, which leads to all manner of philosophical discussion. It's a bleak vision of humanity relieved only occasionally by black comedy. Though a bit overwritten — it's hard to buy working-class people using words like "supercilious" in casual conversation, no matter how high-minded the exchange — the film is full of insight and never stops giving us much to think about. It's rich material for the film's powerhouse ensemble cast. Calvary is the anti-blockbuster — a harsh film that benefits by contrast with more conventional summer fare.