Brendan Gleeson And John Michael McDonagh Blend Mystery And Philosophy In 'Calvary' [Sundance '14 Review]

The opening scene of John Michael McDonagh's Calvary is a frightening juxtaposition that perfectly sets the tone for what's to come. Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is taking confession from a mysterious man who admits to being molested by a priest as a child. Not this specific priest, though, another one, and to get revenge he tells Father James he's going to kill him for no good reason. In an instant, McDonagh has sucked the audience in.

Much like McDonagh and Gleeson's previous film The Guard, Calvary is wholly original. It blends elements of mystery, a detective story and comedy with lots of philosophical ruminations. As Father James spends what might be his final week alive dealing with the townspeople, one of which is his would-be murderer, he tries to solve the riddle by delving into their problems (alcoholism, depression, adultery, etc) through his Catholic beliefs. The result is an ambitious, slow-burn drama with dynamite performances from top to bottom that just misses the mark because it's trying to do too much.

While Gleeson is fantastic as usual, the support cast shines as well. It includes Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids), Kelly Reilly (Flight), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) and Dylan Moran (Shaun of the Dead). Every character is wholly realized and interesting, with the potential for murder as well as redemption.

The problem is McDonagh never quite finds a balance between the mystery, the characters and the conversations. On their own, each element works quite well but just as you get excited by one, something else comes up. "Is this character the potential murdered? Oh wait, what they're saying about God is interesting. Never mind, now I'm curious about what makes them tick." There's lots to like, and while things do come together beautifully at the end, the trip there isn't as cohesive.

Calvary is an impressive piece of work but not as successful as it wants to be. However, when the missteps are due to the filmmaker's ambition and talent, it's hard to fault them too much. I hope McDonagh and Gleeson keep on collaborating, because they're two for two.Calvary got picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight, so it'll likely get a 2014 release./Film rating: 7 out of 10