Cinemadope: Unholy Ghosts

If you grew up Catholic, the local priest probably played a pretty big role in your childhood. Even if you weren’t particularly religious—as my own Catholic-by-default family wasn’t—the parish father was someone you probably saw once a week, if only from afar; for a lot of kids, that’s more often than they see their grandparents. And, of course, if you’re Catholic, the priest is around for most all of your early milestones: baptism, first communion, and other Church rites I don’t remember so well these days. Like I said, we weren’t very good Catholics—but even I, 30-odd years later, can still name most of the priests who came through St. Joseph’s.

Take all that and quadruple it, and you have something that approaches the experience of the Irish Catholic, at least according to my friends and neighbors. There the priest is practically a family member, a sort of exalted uncle who helps the clan navigate life’s choppier waters. But there is no relationship knottier than that of family, and nowhere that betrayal strikes deeper. In John Michael McDonagh’s new film Calvary, screening this week at Amherst Cinema, Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) plays an Irish priest caught up in a churchgoer’s need for revenge.

It all begins during a visit to the confessional, where a parishioner tells Gleeson’s Father James about his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of another priest. That man is already dead, the parishioner explains, and so to make amends the he will take his revenge on Father James; he plans, he says, to kill the priest the next Sunday.

With a week to live, James wanders the town, dropping in on the various members of his flock who might have some reason to wish him harm, including a drunken millionaire with a shady past, a butcher who may be beating his wife, and an atheist doctor James runs into at the pub. (Irish priests always did seem to have more fun.) In the midst of it all, his daughter Fiona—who still harbors a grudge about James’ move from father to Father—comes for a visit from London, giving James an opportunity, however rushed, to reflect on the power of forgiveness.

McDonagh manages to strike a balance between thriller and something deeper: without the mystery of the killer’s identity the film might seem too heavy, weighed down by its own moral tale; without that moral underpinning, it would be little more than a whodunit (or, in this case, a who’s-gonna-do-it). Together they make something more than their parts.

Also this week: For summer entertainment of the guilty pleasure variety, children of the 1980s may enjoy ducking out of work and heading to the multiplex to take in The Expendables 3 (jumbo Dr. Pepper and Sour Patch Kids optional). While the film features a who’s-who from the era’s classically crappy action flicks—Sly Stallone, Schwarzenegger, et al.—that there is a third installment in the series makes one question whether the joke is beginning to be lost on everyone involved. In it, the group crosses swords with a rogue co-founder of its mercenary team (Mel Gibson, alongside new cast members Harrison Ford and Wesley Snipes), who has become a bloodthirsty arms dealer bent on destroying his old crew.

If you’d like a refresher course, the second installment of the series is available to stream via Netflix, but I believe a short list of character names will tell you all you need to know about what you’re getting into: besides Doctor Death and Gunner Jensen, the team also features action star Jet Li as a martial arts expert named, unforgivably, Yin Yang. Don’t say you weren’t warned.•


Jack Brown can be reached at

Author: Jack Brown

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