Brendan Gleeson did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Father James in Calvary.
Father James is a hard right turn from Brendan Gleeson's character from his earlier collaboration with McDonagh. In The Guard he played the terrible cop Gerry Boyle, although not really terrible in the usual way associated with bad cops, well here he plays a good priest Father James who lives in a small town in Ireland that seems to be crammed almost exclusively with sinners. Gleeson's performance here is considerably different from his rather flamboyant, and extremely entertaining performance as the crude Sergeant Boyle. It's a much more reserved performance which one can see from his first scene where Father James receives the death sentence sorts from the unseen man in the confessional. Gleeson's initial reaction effectively sets up the character of Father James as he stays particularly calm as he hears the man's threat, which the man claims is due to being abused by a completely unrelated priest. His reaction is not of great surprise, although perhaps some unease, but reflects that to James, at least at first, this seems to be not far from the normal behavior of his "flock".
After the confessional scene the film follows Father James as he deals with the various problems associated with each member of his congregation. Gleeson is great in creating the sense that Father James is a man who has the patience of a Saint. Although most of his people are at best slightly demented Gleeson presents James as always the good priest as he deals with each of them. Gleeson is good as in any of the situations he does present James as above all willing to listen to the evil that the people feel that they must espouse at him in any chance they are given. Gleeson does portray a discontent in James, as he definitely finds their behavior more than a little tiresome, after all who would not especially since they are seem to purposefully shove it into James's face. Gleeson though shows what it basically takes to be a good priest which is to not judge, after all unless he be judged, while still trying to attempt to present them the righteous path. Of course given the people he has to deal with this is not an easy to task to say the least.
After all Father James has to deal with a constant adulterer, her possibly abusive husband, possibly abusive boyfriend, a suicidal writer, a killing obsessed young man, his shallow fellow priest, and that does even consider the people outside of his parish who are as morally questionable such as the local bartender, doctor, inspector, prostitute, millionaire and naturally a murderer as well. I won't lie and I will say McDonagh lays it on a bit too thick, but Gleeson does not falter in his portrayal of James. Gleeson is particularly good in portraying the attempt as James to help these people in some way. Gleeson brings a great deal of warmth in words and presents a grand wisdom in James, which unfortunately is routinely ignored by all. Gleeson though exudes an honest goodness that is very worldly to be sure. As everything piles up, including some extra tragedies clearly meant to trouble James, Gleeson though does portray the wear on James as he can help but be worn down by the way that not only do the people have no shame they seem to enjoy showing that James's words mean nothing to them.
Like all the films in the collective McDonagh brothers filmography Calvary is a dark comedy. Gleeson here takes a different style than in The Guard where he was the direct source of all sorts of humor. Here Gleeson actually must be the straight man to the insanity seen from the community. I would again say the film does not thrive in this regard as its just not simply as funny as In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, or the Guard. Gleeson though still manages to be quietly entertaining in the role, and maneuvers through a particularly difficult challenge since he does have to fulfill the most dramatic points of the film. Gleeson though still manages to find the humor through minor tinges mostly in his exasperation found in James. He can't quite go for full hilarity because of the nature of the role, but he nicely finds the comic potential that's there without compromising the role. Beyond the humor the brighter spots for James comes in the form of his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) who also attempted suicide, because of course she did.
Gleeson and Reilly create the history between the father and daughter which is made honest in their combination of some distance, caused partially be him becoming a priest, but an absolutely genuine feeling of love that is there. Gleeson is terrific in these scenes by portraying the grand appreciate for life that is in James, and nicely presents this bright spot amid the darkness created by the rest of the townspeople. What Gleeson does do so incredibly well here is by presenting the decay of a truly righteous man. Gleeson is terrific by portraying the way he internalizes the wear of his terrible predicament. Gleeson is especially good in the scenes where James does lash out, although technically speaking in a harmless fashion. Gleeson is great by playing these moments as understandable outbursts near the breaking point. Even in this Gleeson still presents the inherent charity as the outbursts are still somewhat deflected in manner, and far more charitable reactions than frankly what the people deserve.
Gleeson effectively brings James to the point where he is about to leave, which seems to the logical course, but decides to go back and face his destiny. Gleeson is outstanding in his final scene where he goes about speaking to a few of the people. In the moment Gleeson portrays James back to truly believing in his cause once again, and presents one less time the truly empathetic nature of James. He's moving as he portrays such a genuine quality particularly when he speaks to the millionaire and conveys such a strong passion in his belief that a second chance is possible. When James finally comes face to face with the man who had promised to kill him Gleeson is heartbreaking by again through his depiction of the decency of the man. When he pleads with the man Gleeson does not express it as a man who is pleading for his own life, but honestly pleading to the killer that there is still time for the killer to save his own life. Although the film itself somewhat misses the heights it's aiming for Brendan Gleeson's performance does not. He gives a beautiful and soulful portrait of a truly selfless man.