John Michael McDonagh’s feature debut, The Guard, opens with a scene in which a group of young men are seen drinking and driving around the back streets of County Galway whilst Rock Star by N.E.R.D. plays on the soundtrack. It’s an exuberant, slightly obnoxious opening gambit that ends almost as soon as it begins.
The car zooms past Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), a member of the local Garda (the Irish police force), only for it to crash off-screen, to Gerry’s obvious annoyance. He gets out of his car, rummages through the pockets of the dead men, finding drugs in their possession. If the obvious transgression of interfering with a crime scene wasn’t evidence enough that Gerry isn’t a conventional cop, the film makes this point very obvious when he takes the drugs and throws them away, but not before taking a tab of Ecstasy for himself, so he can appreciate what a ‘beautiful f**king day’ it is.
This short, economical opening beautifully establishes the character of Gerry Boyle as a man who is pretty much wholly corrupted, but not evil. Certainly, he takes drugs from a dead man, but mainly because he doesn’t want the fuss and bother that would come about if anyone else found them. Gerry’s world is profoundly altered by the appearance of a new constable (Rory Keenan) and the discovery of what might be a serial killer acting in the area. Things quickly snowball out of control, until Gerry is dealing with drug dealers, blackmail and an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) who believes that his skills and training have prepared him for dealing with some of Ireland’s more colourful characters.
The most obvious point of comparison for The Guard is In Bruges, which was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh’s brother Martin McDonagh and which also starred Brendan Gleeson as a man of dubious morality. It’s also a wildly inaccurate point of comparison because, whilst the two films share a similarly curdled and caustic sense of humour, they have little else in common in terms of style and tone. Whilst In Bruges was an attempt to do Harold Pinter with gags, The Guard is a police procedural with Western overtones, which distinguishes itself through a terrific sense of place and a wickedly intelligent, deadpan script, delivered by a varied retinue of oddball characters.
Despite its strong supporting cast, the film belongs to Brendan Gleeson, who is typically great as Boyle. He plays him as a man who has seen a great deal and knows a lot, but doesn’t let too much show. Whenever he is confronted with authority, he plays dumb, but only to hide his shrewd and calculating nature, the only indicator of his intelligence being the ease with which he maintains his mask of stupidity.
The Guard is a hugely entertaining film that is satisfying on a number of different levels. It works as both a pure genre exercise, but also as a sly comment on the standard tropes of that genre (best evidenced by a scene in which Mark Strong, as one of the drug smugglers, delivers an hilariously bitter tirade about bribery etiquette). It’s a crass, raucous comedy that also finds time to reference Nietzeche, Bertrand Russell and to offer a critique of the entirety of Russian literature. Like its main character, it’s a film with a lot of facets to it, all of which work together beautifully to make it one of the most purely fun films of the year.
In selected cinemas nationside
words Edwin Davies