The luck of the Irish runs out for one unsuspecting priest in John Michael McDonagh’s wicked black comedy that contrives a murder mystery before the heinous crime has been committed.
In a riveting opening sequence worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) tends to his flock in a close-knit Sligo community riddled with dark secrets.
Sitting quietly in the confession booth, the holy man is stunned when an anonymous male parishioner confides, “I was raped by a priest when I was seven years old, every other day for five years.”
Father James listens intently as the man calmly reveals that his abuser was never punished and he intends to exact revenge by spilling more blood.
“There’s no point in killing a bad priest,” the confessor continues. “I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.”
Thus, Father James is instructed to put his affairs in order before his date with destiny on the local beach.
“Killing a priest on a Sunday – that’ll be a good one,” concludes the parishioner before he leaves the booth.
With the clock ticking, the holy man searches for glimmers of hope in the eyes of his wayward flock including the scheming laird (Dylan Moran), the butcher (Chris O’Dowd) whose adulterous wife (Orla O’Rourke) is engaged in a violent tryst with a garage mechanic (Isaach De Bankole) and his own daughter (Kelly Reilly).
Everyone has something to hide, it seems, and McDonagh’s richly detailed script suggests that any of the men in town, including the doctor (Aiden Gillen) and an ailing American writer (M Emmet Walsh), might be Father James’s intended killer.
Indeed, the only suspects the weather-beaten priest is willing to discount are militant Islamists.
“I don’t think Sligo is high on the al Qaeda agenda,” he quips to one of the locals.
Sunday draws closer, forcing Father James to consider all of the wrongs he has committed and their potential repercussions.
Building on incendiary themes in his 2011 directorial debut The Guard, McDonagh delivers an accomplished portrait of an insular world marinading in depravity and regret. He populates the wind-swept locations with a memorable band of misfits and degenerates.
Gleeson delivers a towering performance as a vessel of God, who may pay the ultimate price for another man’s sins.
He relishes the meaty dialogue and enjoys some fractious exchanges with the locals at the pub where his prime suspects whisper conspiratorially as Dolly Parton trills from the jukebox.
The tension cranks up, reaching a crescendo as Father James takes the lonely walk down to the beach to discover his destiny as angry waves crash onto golden sands.
We silently plead him to stop, to turn around and flee to safety, but McDonagh has never offered his characters an easy way out.
Death comes calling for us all, and here he makes reservations.