December 11, 2014 -- This is a very tough movie to sit through because it is about a kind of trial by fire. It is a series of crises that push a man to his breaking point. This is not the kind of movie you enjoy, but I did admire the way this film was made. It earned my highest rating. It is one of the year's best films.
Brendan Gleason is one of the old lions among the ranks of fine actors. There is still power inside this big bear-like man and he gives a real powerhouse performance as a priest, Father James, who is under great emotional and spiritual stress in an Irish village. In the opening scene, he hears a terrible confession from a man who was sexually abused by a priest as a child. The priest who abused him is dead, and was never punished for his sins.
The man muses that it would do no good to kill an evil priest, that would be mere revenge, but maybe people would notice if he killed a good priest, like Father James. He announces that he will meet Father James on the beach in a week and kill him for the sins of the church. The identity of man threatening Father James is not revealed until the end of the film.
The pressure builds on Father James the rest of the week as he goes about his duties, counseling people and families and dealing with his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly of “Flight”) who has just attempted suicide (Father James was married before becoming a priest). One of the people that Father James counsels is a famous author (played by M. Emmet Walsh of “My Best Friend's Wedding”). The writer asks Father James for a gun so he can kill himself when he gets too old and sick. Father James gets a gun from a policeman he knows, but it is unclear whether he plans to give it to the writer or defend himself with it.
There are a wide assortment of troubles that Father James deals with during the week, a woman cheating on her husband with several men, a man beating up a woman, a man who wants to join the army because he is awkward around women. Father James tells the would-be soldier that there is no asterisk next to “Thou shalt not kill,” with a list of footnotes saying when killing people is acceptable.
Then the troubles become more personal, someone kills Father James' dog and burns down his church. He is mocked by a particularly nasty atheist and an unhappy millionaire, and everywhere Father James is reminded by others of the enormous damage caused by pedophiles in the priesthood. He finally breaks down one night and goes on a drinking binge and gets into a fight at a bar with those who mock him and his faith.
Father James is a man who is trying to be a good priest. He wants to help people, but this week has put his faith to the test. Will he keep the faith? Will he meet his killer on the beach at the appointed day and hour? Will he bring the gun with him to that meeting? Will he reveal the name of the man threatening him to the police? If he sacrifices himself, will it be for his faith, or has he simply grown tired of living? All these questions are balanced in a very delicate way in this film. Don't look for easy answers here. All you get are hard questions.
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh has crafted a bleak and bitter film here that is tough on the Catholic Church and the Christian faith, but it is fair and balanced in its own way. I kept waiting the for the film to make a wrong turn, to cheat, to take the easy way out, to lean on film clichés and formulas, but it never did. I was forced to admire the craftsmanship of this film. I admire the excellence of the writing, the acting, the editing, the whole package. Most of all, I admired the towering performance by Brendon Gleason in this complex role. This is a great film, one of the year's best. It rates an A.
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