John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard was one of the best films of 2011, a sharp, wry, talky culture clash comedy that pitted straight laced federal agent Don Cheadle against the blustering, Irish provocateur Brendan Gleeson. In Calvary, Gleeson is again McDonagh’s center as a Catholic priest tending to an Irish seaside community. The film opens in the confessional, with a man telling Gleeson that in 7 days time, he will meet him on the beach and murder him. What follows is a depiction of Gleeson’s role in a town in transition culturally, economically and spiritually, where Gleeson’s faith is tested time and time again. McDonagh has crafted a compelling parable, deep with import. It also stands as one of the few films that conveys the centrality of religion in a particular modern locale (The Apostle comes to mind but that was set in the American South, which is many ways archaic). Yet, as much as the film is steeped in the story of the New Testament, it is thoroughly modern, as Gleeson is mocked, goaded and pitied by a flock that considers him a joke from days gone past yet are drawn to his authority and the promise of understanding and guidance.
This sounds very heavy and yet, McDonagh’s strength is his keen grasp of the unique Irish patter, with its unyielding thrust and parry. The dialogue is razor sharp and bitingly funny, and when these characters get past the language that insulates them, an almost national dialogue, revelation of their pain is truly moving. This is a brilliant film, one of the best of the year, and while the crimes of the Academy are many, the omission of Gleeson and the screenplay for nominations is, keeping in a religious vein, an abomination.