MOVIE REVIEW: The Guard
Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) abuses suspects, makes casually racist slurs, and confronts his superiors on a daily basis. When someone calls him an “unconventional police officer” early in John Michael McDonagh’s sharp-tongued black comedy, The Guard, it might be the understatement of the year. Boyle even answers his office phone by saying, “Last of the independents.” Similar to other unorthodox heroes in the cop film genre, Boyle’s outward sarcasm and spite are defense mechanisms against years of indifference and corruption. The environment is broken, not the man himself, and Boyle’s vices merely mask the judicial lawman waiting for the opportunity to once again do the right thing.
As a member of the Garda Síochána (Guard of the Peace of Ireland), Boyle polices a rural district on the West coast of Ireland collectively mired in slow motion. Elderly citizens stroll down the road, a precocious boy pulls a dog on his bike, and town folk seem permanently rooted to their pub stools. Only the opening sequence, a devilishly funny introduction to Boyle’s rule-breaking persona, has any sense of speed to it. A group of thuggish poseurs cruise down the road blasting rap music and drinking whisky, only to violently crash seconds later. Boyle watches the wreck from his parked police cruiser, and instead of helping, casually walks up to the scene and searches one ejected body for paraphernalia. Violent comeuppance like this is ecstasy for his snarky soul.
Amazingly, Boyle’s unhinged ordinary world of sex, drugs, and first-person-shooter video games continues even after a trio of drug traffickers (wonderfully played by Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, and David Wilmot) starts dropping bodies in his district. He actively participates in the investigation, but seems content with reveling in his own excesses, like taking the day off to entertain his two favorite Dublin call girls. FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), a whip smart American charged with leading the investigation, is both aghast and fascinated by Boyle’s antics. “You’re either really dumb or really smart,” Everett tells Boyle, the Irishman slyly smiling back at his Yankee colleague. He’s a hibernating grizzly bear just waiting for the right confluence of events to wake up.
On paper, The Guard reeks of the standard fish-out-of-water conventions, but this is no Lethal Weapon rip-off. McDonagh brilliantly tweaks our expectations, separating the two men for long stretches to develop each as individual characters before pushing them back together at the violent 11th hour. Almost every aspect of their investigation gets subverted, either by Boyle’s disinterest or Wendell’s inability to communicate with the locals. The Guard is more interested in a specific sense of frontier justice and mood than actual procedures of police work. The two leads size each other up in fittingly vulgar and menacing dialogue exchanges, and McDonagh pushes them to separate corners of the frame. As a result, these shots highlight the rolling hills and wintry skylines, spreading out the compositional focus for all types of glorious widescreen standoffs. Calexico’s Morricone-infused guitar heavy score only solidifies The Guard as a true Spaghetti Western transplanted to the frigid Irish coast.
More than a deconstruction of genre, though,The Guard succeeds because of its switchblade script. Between all the vulgarity, historical irony (there’s an IRA cowboy) and comedic darkness, McDonagh finds the soul of each character (both good and evil) in their confessions. Late in the film, Boyle shares a great scene with a fallen comrade’s wife and tells her, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get to know you better.” His vulnerability cuts deep, transitioning Boyle from a Waiting for Godot world of inconsequence into High Noon territory. Finally, he truly is the last of the independents.