The weaker middle section would probably fade if the finale were more carefully constructed. It's hard, even with a film titled Calvary, to talk about the end without plot spoilers, so I will simply say that the ending's attempt to indict the morally indifferent ends up complicating Lavelle's status as innocent scapegoat. The film also stylizes the climactic scene in ways no other scene is shot, repeating one act in slow motion like a sporting highlight or pale Tarantino imitation. (For the record, I have liked and esteemed several Tarantino films, but they are so over-the-top throughout that moments of self-aware bombast don't ruin the overall effect; while not devoid of moral seriousness, these films don't have enough of it to be undermined by their moments of self-parody.)
I will be the first to admit that Calvary stands taller than the films that surround it. Is it a better film than Lucy, Hercules, Tammy, 22 Jump Street, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Edge of Tomorrow, Maleficent, Godzilla, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Of course it is.
But can we mostly agree that such comparisons are a pretty low bar? The film asks, begs, and practically stomps its foot and demands to be compared to the works of Dostoevsky, Flannery O'Connor, and Robert Bresson. As fellow critic Victor Morton pointed out when the film played at Sundance, you can't have a character quote George Bernanos and then pretend you are not asking to be put in the same category as Diary of a Country Priest.
But the writer that McDonagh ultimately most reminds me of is Graham Greene. That's no insult. The Power and the Glory and The Tenth Men are respectable horror tales of men trying to do right while trapped in impossible situations. And it is to their—and Calvary's—credit that they admit people of faith sometimes do walk the walk as well as talk and talk.
That admission alone earns the film a pass for the cacophony of bleeping language and blood splatter. It just doesn't earn it the right to be spoken of in the same breath as Crime and Punishment.
Calvary is rated R, primarily for one explicit and gruesome act of violence. A man in a confessional describes being raped using explicit language, and there are maybe two dozen or so uses of obscene or profane language. (Somehow when these words are said with an Irish brogue they don't seem quite so egregious. I wonder if people with other accents feel the same way about hearing Americans cussing?) There is some damage against property and cruelty to an animal. Father Lavelle briefly notices someone snorting cocaine.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.