Brendan Gleeson is one of my favorite actors. He is not a marquee name and probably never will be, but he’s a long way from just a character actor. He has achieved star billing in several really good smaller movies, such as The Guard and In Bruges. For a certain kind of role—smart, imperturbable, confident—you just can’t do any better.
Here he is a man who came late to the priesthood. He has a daughter from his now-deceased wife, and he operates from a small church in County Sligo. One day in the confessional a man tells of how he was raped orally and anally every other day for five years by a priest, starting at age seven. The priest is dead now. But the man still wants his revenge, and has decided that killing a good priest would make more of an impression than killing a pedophile. He has selected Father James, and promises to kill him in a week, on Sunday.
The bishop points out to Father James that since the man did not ask for absolution he is not covered by the rules of the confessional, and he is free to go to the police. James knows who the man is, but he never reveals his name to the bishop or to us, by word or gesture. We know it has to be one of the men he interacts with over the next week and you want to try to guess, but that’s not really the point. This is no thriller. James can prevent the murder any time he wants to, but he doesn’t.
The next week is probably the most stressful of his life. His daughter has tried to kill herself (actually, it’s more of a gesture). He meets with an unrepentant cannibalistic serial killer in gaol. One youth he counsels thinks he had better join the army, because he wants to kill someone. Anyone, but probably one of the girls he can’t connect with. He confronts a wife-beater and his proudly adulterous wife. Someone burns down his church, and as if that wasn’t enough, someone cuts the throat of his old dog. He snaps, drinks himself silly, and gets into a bar brawl.
But he shows up on the beach on Sunday to confront his potential murderer. I’m not exactly sure why. Possibly to try to atone for all the sins of all those rapist priests over the years. Possibly because he is sobered by the realization that a lot of the villagers don’t really like him, for no better reason than that he retains his faith in the face of horrific events they find inexplicable, if there is a God. (I share some of this outrage, myself.) The killer is the one I suspected, but again, it doesn’t really matter. It is a very powerful and understated performance by Gleeson, from an intelligent and thoughtful script.
Does a man like James share some collective responsibility for the crimes committed by Catholic preists? I don’t think so. Not the men down on the ground, dealing with human tragedy every day. But I’ll tell you something, I would not shed a tear if someone assassinated a bishop, archbishop, or cardinal who actively aided in the cover-ups, and then proceeded to transfer rapist priests to other parishes, knowing full well they would continue to blight young lives. I would in fact not care if these men were tortured to death. I’d buy a ticket to that show. The Catholic Church has much to answer for, and the price has only begun to be paid.