Calvary“I was seven years old when I first tasted semen” is the shocking opening line to John Michael McDonagh’s riveting feature Calvary. A nervous laughter then echoes around the room, as suddenly the Irish comedy caper we’d be expecting, takes something of a dark turn, dispelling our presumptions in an instance. Although anticipating a feature not too far removed from the director’s preceding endeavour The Guard, or perhaps his brother Martin’s renowned gem In Bruges, instead this opening scene paves the way for what is a more profound and poignant affair.

The McDonagh family favourite Brendan Gleeson plays Father James – on the receiving end of the very confession that begins this picture. The elusive presence on the other side of the booth remains unidentified, but as he discusses being molested as a child by a priest, he then declares that in an act of vengeance he wants to murder an innocent, exonerated figure, and decides that Father James will be his victim. He declares he will commit his sin in a week’s time, leaving the priest to prepare for his untimely fate, while in the meantime his daughter (Kelly Reilly) comes to visit.

Though containing that distinctively droll, sometimes surrealistic Irish wit, which remains prevalent throughout, Calvary is a film that obsesses over death, as a fascinating character study of a man seemingly facing up to his own destiny. He’s aware of what might occur in a few days time, and yet rather than make a run for the hills, we watch as he comes to terms with it, contemplating his existence, finding some sort of comfort in this deranged situation. During such time, we explore local residents’ relationship with the church, providing roles for the likes of Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen and Dylan Moran. There’s a degree of vitriol and ridicule aimed in Father James’ direction, but it’s counteracted by this desire to confide in the priest. People scrutinise over his methods or beliefs, yet there’s a tangible comfort in having his presence around the town. As such the picture is made up mostly of sincere, philosophical conversations, ones which explore love, death, religion and everything in between.

In a similar vein to what his brother accomplished with Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh deconstructs cinema somewhat, with the occasional self-referential moment, as a meta-film of sorts. There’s also a whodunnit element attached, as we question who is behind the initial threat, analysing each supporting character, who are deliberately placed to each represent a potential antagonist, as a wild guessing game ensues. Father James, however, is fully aware of his intimidator, which is somewhat consoling, placing the character in a rare position of power over the viewer. Meanwhile, Gleeson is remarkably amiable in the lead, with such a graceful screen presence. However when needs be, he can be so brutal, and with such a nuanced character to work with, we see the very best of the talented actor in this production. He has a sincerity to his demeanour and a humility so vital where playing a priest is concerned.

We’ve seen the Irish explore the Catholic Church before on screen, most notably from a comedic angle in the sublime Father Ted. However, and while certainly bearing shades of the aforementioned sitcom, this is a far more sobering, philosophical affair. Keeping you captivated from the opening line to the very last, this wonderfully written screenplay marks a triumphant sophomore endeavour for McDonagh, as we now wait fervently for whatever he brings us next.