Ye of little faith

A priest struggles with his flock in John Michael McDonagh's tasteful, frustrating 'Calvary'

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He's got spirit: Calvary benefits from Brendan Gleeson's star turn.
PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT

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FILM While I'm sure they don't enjoy being lumped together — one imagines them ornery, if not just bratty — the brothers McDonagh share an extremely like-minded sensibility. Not least among numerous overlaps is possessing the kind of talent that is undeniable and suspect. Just because they're frequently as clever as they think they are, need they be quite such show-offs about it?

Martin McDonagh first got attention with a series of plays (including The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and The Pillowman) that startlingly dragged traditional Irish drama toward Grand Guignol. Were they gratuitously or brilliantly cruel? Either or both, perhaps depending on the quality of the production you saw. He made his feature debut as writer-director with the insanely self-conscious yet delightful comedy-caper bloodbath In Bruges (2008). His 2012 exercise in auto-arse-kissing smartypantsery, Seven Psychopaths, might've struck you as insufferable (my vote), or the funniest hired-gun movie since Boondock Saints (1999). Notable trivia: Mickey Rourke dropped out of that movie, getting replaced by Woody Harrelson, because he thought McDonagh was a "jerk-off." When Mickey Rourke thinks you're a dick ... well, you're definitely something of a world-class nature.

By the time John Michael McDonagh emerged, his brother was already ensconced in slightly infamous fame. Discounting his adaptive screenplay for disappointing 2003 Aussie-Robin-Hood biopic Ned Kelly, John Michael made a splashy entree both writing and directing The Guard eight years later.

It starred Brendan Gleeson — a significant Irish national resource both McDonagh siblings have made regular use of, as a willfully perverse small town cop who takes infinite pleasure flummoxing the tightly wound FBI agent (Don Cheadle) he's forced to investigate an international drug-smuggling ring with. Endlessly acerbic, spectacularly scenic, The Guard is so pleased-as-punch with itself you might occasionally wish to punch it. But Preston Sturges was also conspicuously delighted by his prancing-prize-pony of a mind, which didn't make its cavorting any less delightful to others.

Gleeson and John Michael are back with Calvary, a film just as good, if yea more suspect for crimes of excess facility — especially because this time he's being serious, at least sorta kinda. This McDonaugh's flippancy is of the kind that makes you wonder whether he's even capable of really giving a shit about anything, in part because he occasionally fakes it so well.

Father James (Gleeson) is the discreetly gruff moral center of a coastal Irish hamlet that surely would have none otherwise. His parishioners, living in some glossy tourist advertisement whose quaint authenticity looks polished beyond belief (or an actual native's budget), are all skeptics, heretics, nonbelievers, and blatant sinners. They take particular pleasure in ridiculing the uprightness of this one man no one has a legitimate gripe against, save resentment.

There's self-assigned upscale town slut Veronica (Orla O'Rourke), having a possibly kinky affair (among many) with handsome Ivory Coast émigré Simon (Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach de Bankole), while husband Jack (Chris O'Dowd) claims bored indifference. Cynical Dr. Frank (Aidan Gillen) is seemingly hardened to suffering by all he's witnessed in the hospital operating room. Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran) is the new lord of the local manor, a disgraced but as-yet-unjailed predatory financier who toys with holy forgiveness as he might any other asset his filthy millions could acquire.

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