John Michael McDonagh has found his very own De Niro in Brendan Gleeson

A priest sits in a confessional shrouded in darkness. He listens as an unseen man describes in graphic terms how, as a child, he was repeatedly raped by another cleric. He tells Brendan Gleeson’s Fr James that, because his attacker is now dead, he will murder him instead in a week’s time on the local beach. “Killing a priest on a Sunday, that’ll be a good one,” he jokes.

So begins John Michael McDonagh’s pitch-black comedy Calvary and from this startling beginning Fr James drifts towards his very own high noon. He spends what could be his final week on earth getting on with his pastoral duties, touring his sparsely populated parish in rural Ireland and catching up with his cartoonish flock, including Chris O’Dowd’s simpleton butcher and Aidan Gillen’s unhinged doctor. To a man and woman they are deeply troubled and each has the potential to be the killer. This is not so much a whodunit as a who-will-do-it, and in facing his personal Calvary, will Fr James be damned or saved?

As with his debut film The Guard, in which Gleeson played a lazy, prostitute-loving policeman, McDonagh peppers proceedings with punchy, coarse exchanges. Think Father Ted via Scorsese or Tarantino.

There are scenes of drug-taking, discussions about pornography and an insane rent boy charging around. Breaking one of the golden rules of cinema, McDonagh also makes sure things don’t end too well for Fr James’s beloved dog. Some might find all of this too edgy, but others will laugh uproariously (I did). And if you are in the latter camp, you’ll find beneath all the dark comedy a film with plenty of serious and nuanced things to say about life, death and religion.

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