On Movies: Thrill of violence, soul of love

Brendan Gleeson as Father James in "Calvary." The dark film "is about forgiveness" and "holding onto our belief in some form of human goodness," he says. Associated Press
Brendan Gleeson as Father James in "Calvary." The dark film "is about forgiveness" and "holding onto our belief in some form of human goodness," he says. Associated Press
Posted: August 04, 2014

It's the picture of innocence: a country priest in billowing cassock, strolling a rural road in Ireland's windswept West, encountering a young girl, chatting with her about this, about that.

But then her father pulls up in a car, and angrily summons her. With an utterly vilifying look, he warns the cleric off.

"That scene encapsulates everything the movie is about," says Brendan Gleeson, the Irish actor who plays Father James, a good priest in a bad world, in John Michael McDonagh's stormy tale of reckoning, Calvary.

"It's a powerful, troubling, funny moment," says Gleeson, a familiar face in big Hollywood pictures ( Edge of Tomorrow, the Harry Potters) and small British and Irish independents alike. "You can't even talk to a child anymore. I mean, it's not merely priests - I think any man, at this point, has to think twice about talking to children on the road.

"There's something fundamentally broken when that's the way things are."

Opening Friday at the Ritz Five, Calvary marks the second collaboration between writer/director McDonagh and Gleeson, following the 2012 corrupt-constable black comedy The Guard. Although limned with similarly acerbic wit, Calvary is a darker affair - very dark, indeed.

Spanning a week in Father James' life, it begins with a parishioner, his identity concealed in the confessional, telling the priest to get his affairs in order because the following Sunday he will be killed. The victim of sexual abuse by another priest, the confessor sees a neat irony in sentencing the well-liked, well-meaning man of God to his death - for the sins of his church brethren.

Father James, then, has a week to wonder if the threat is real, and to consider his past, his family (before joining the church he had a daughter, played by Kelly Reilly), and his relationships with the villagers, one of whom may well be his executioner. Chris O'Dowd, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet, and Aidan Gillen also star.

Like some Celtic take on a classic western, Calvary's hero faces a fateful showdown. It's High Noon in Yeats country, a Sligo shoot-'em-up.

" High Noon is absolutely there," says Gleeson, 59, on the phone from Washington recently, drawing comparisons between the magnificent desert landscapes of John Ford and Howard Hawks westerns, and the giant rocks and rolling verdant hills of his native land.

"Benbulben, the big mountain in County Sligo, is like the Monument Valley," he suggests. "It has this epic beauty - and to see the horror that is happening, and yet the beauty that it's framed in, is quite striking."

Calvary's director is the older brother of playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, for whom Gleeson has also - famously - worked. The actor and Colin Farrell played hit men on the run in the younger McDonagh's crackling, crazy 2008 art-house hit In Bruges. Similar themes and motifs show up in the work of both McDonaghs.

"I find it difficult to describe how they are different, but they are," Gleeson says of the siblings. "My standard way of saying it is that I can't imagine any of John's characters in Martin's films, and I can't really imagine anybody from In Bruges being in the world of The Guard, or the world of Calvary."

That said, the possibility of violence - and the thrill of violence when it occurs - is something that courses through all their respective titles. In fact, the first time Gleeson worked with Martin, on the 2004 Oscar-winning short "Six Shooter," the guns and the blood and the gore troubled the actor.

"I wondered whether he was just pushing the envelope for the sake of it," Gleeson recalls. "And we had a long discussion about it, and at the end, he said, 'Do you not realize that my work is about love?'

"And the more I thought about it, the less I could find a character in his plays, or in his screenplays - or in John's - where you could say, 'That was a completely despicable human being.' Every character in their work - both of them - has compassion, or we have compassion at some level for them.

"And this one, Calvary, is about forgiveness, and maybe about holding onto our belief in some form of human goodness."

"It's very important that all that black humor has a heart and soul. It's massively important," Gleeson concludes. "That's where it becomes art, as opposed to cynicism."

srea@phillynews.com     215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea    www.inquirer.com/onmovies

comments powered by Disqus