While critically well-regarded, Calvary hasn’t received much attention since its release in 2014. Similar to recent Oscar-winner Spotlight, the film deals with the issue of abuse within the Catholic church. While that far more gilded film focused on the discovery of widespread abuse, John Michael McDonagh instead zeroes in on its aftermath in Ireland; arguably a more difficult task.
The film probes the future role of the Catholic church in society through small-town priest Father James, masterfully played by Brendan Gleeson. While taking confessions he is told by one of his parishioners, a now-adult abuse victim, that he, James, will be murdered in a week. The rest of the film then follows James in his final days, meeting with his thoroughly disillusioned parish, while also trying to help his depressed adult daughter.
Understandably, the film belongs to Gleeson, who gives a textured performance as Father James; a fundamentally good-hearted man who has been battered by the world. Part of what makes Gleeson’s performance so towering is that he is supported by the rest of the cast, who are uniformly excellent. However, it’s Aidan Gillen’s turn as “atheistic doctor” Frank Harte who stands out as the key supporting player.
This is because more than any other character Harte epitomises the purest form of evil to square off against Gleeson. This might seem an odd statement at first, since Gleeson’s own son Domhnall plays an imprisoned serial killer in the film. But while there is a meta-textual thrill to watching father and son act together, it is in Gillen’s scenes that Calvary becomes most unsettling.
More so than any other character, Harte acts as the complete antithesis to James. In some ways they share similarities, but this only highlights their fundamental opposition to each other. As a doctor and a priest, they both must bear witness to the spiritual nadir of human existence. Harte’s first lengthy scene with James has them meeting in the hospital after a fatal car crash caused by drunk driving, where James must give the last rites to a wholly innocent man who was caught in it. Both characters are appropriately world-weary, but that is where their similarities end, as evidenced by their reactions to the tragedy. Harte is seemingly unmoved, makes light of the situation, and is even glad that the teens who caused the accident are dead. James, meanwhile, expresses quiet horror.
However, there is more to Gillen’s performance than being a ghastly reflection of James. He’s not the only cynic among the cast. In fact, he’s one of many characters who try to get a rise out of James. Like the wealthy Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), Harte’s dismissive joking about religion comes off as facetious. Moran laces his performance with clues to the pain behind Fitzgerald’s façade, before the mask slips in his final scene, and he confesses to James that he’s profoundly depressed. Harte, however, openly flaunts the performative nature of his shtick. In a metafictional flourish, he says of his role as the atheistic doctor: “it’s a clichéd part to play. There aren’t that many good lines.” If Fitzgerald allows his masks to slip, then Harte proudly takes it off to reveal nothing but a malignant nihilism. Gillen has proven to be adept at these veiled characters, whether it be the careerist politician Tommy Carcetti in The Wire, or the Machiavellian Littlefinger in Game of Thrones.
Harte’s showmanship and his mirroring with James ultimately enables him to deliver the most unnerving moment of the entire film. After his church has been burnt to the ground, and his daughter has left, James finds himself alone in the pub. Harte approaches him, and delivers this monologue:
Although Harte frames it as biographical, there’s an air of performance about Gillen’s delivery, and the audience is left uncertain as to whether this was a story he just made up on the spot. The soundtrack to this harrowing tale of supreme childhood trauma is a song called ‘My Name is Carnival’ by Jackson C. Frank, an artist whose own youth was horrifically scarred by cruel fate. When James angrily asks why the fuck he would tell a story like that, Harte just shrugs: “No reason.” Although it’s never mentioned in this scene, the legacy of child abuse within the Catholic church hangs heavy over these proceedings, conveying the despair and powerlessness one feels when grappling with it.
This encounter with Harte is ultimately what causes James to fall off the wagon. The title of Calvary refers to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. If James is seen to be a Christ figure who dies for the sins of his parish, and his Church (in the eyes of his killer at least), then Harte is the devil tempting him to descend into nihilism. At the end of the film, James tells his daughter he believes that too much attention is paid to sins, and not enough to virtues. Without the threat of Harte’s extreme philosophy, this moment would carry no weight. While it is undoubtedly Gleeson’s film, that final message of Calvary would just be unconvincing without the complex darkness that Gillen lends to his performance as Frank Harte.