365 Days, 100 Films #49 – The Guard (2011)

The Guard, 2011.

Directed by John Michael McDonagh.
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, Rory Keenan and Mark Strong.


A billion dollar drug shipment is the last thing Sergeant Gerry Boyle wants on his watch. Not because of any moral positioning – he’d most probably like all that cocaine for himself – but because it would be a massive inconvenience.

There’s a shot in The Guard where Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), our protagonist, walks up to a kid in the middle of nowhere. The kid is one of the film’s quirky recurring characters. He rides a pink, girl’s bicycle, and although it has stabilisers, he persistently stumbles off of it. His faded green and purple jacket looks like it was unearthed in the darkest recesses of TK Maxx’s sportswear section.

This happens some way into the film. We already know how mischievous the kid can be. He’s summoned Boyle to meet him here, in the remote Irish outback. As Boyle walks, the camera pirouettes a slow 360-degree turn. The land is flat and barren, grey and overcast. But it feels like a Western. Perhaps it’s the way the sky meets the ground, or maybe the time taken for the simple action of walking. There’s an occasional maraca on the soundtrack, as though Morricone was passing through the studio when it was recorded. More probably, it’s the way the environment dwarfs the characters it holds. Boyle and the kid are insignificant in this land. It doesn’t care for them. There’s a conspiracy in its sullen reeds.

Which makes the film sound rather brooding. Quite the opposite – The Guard has a very wicked sense of humour. Swear words are used as verbal punctuation. Racist observations are made for no reason other than to provoke. If you become offended by the humour, however, the jokes are on you. The film, like its main character, is smarter than you think. It’s trying to get a rise out of you. It’s testing how confrontational it can be.

Boyle is a Sergeant of a small village in Ireland. He’s content with the lack of work, and fills his time taking tabs of acid from the wallets of recently deceased boy racers (“what a fucking beautiful day”). On annual leave, he’ll hire out a couple of whores and a hotel room. He’s grumpy, cynical and mean. But he also has an ill mother in the local home. She’s as crude as him, but their insults at each other are warm. The only thing that would offend them is corniness.

The people above Boyle (who are incompetent and he detests), the ‘big city boys,’ are working with an FBI officer, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). There is to be a large drug shipment onto Boyle’s shores. At the briefing, Boyle innocently observes upon seeing Everett, “I thought all black people are drug dealers.” After an immediate rebuke from Everett, he flippantly defends with “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture.” But amongst the police force’s ripe corruption, they move on to be reluctant partners.

Their antagonists, the drug dealers, aren’t the conventional villains. Led by the cockney Clive Cornell (Mark Strong), they debate over their favourite philosophers and hold ‘quote competitions’. Rohan Morbey, on this very site, said he was bored of such characters post-Pulp Fiction. He’s missing the additional paradoxes. Cornell constantly states his disappointment in the corrupt and horrible people he has to deal with in his line of work. The others point out its all part of the job, but it doesn’t stop Cornell being overly negative. And then later, when Boyle comes for him, all guns a-blazing, he shout’s he will kill him. The irony is there, but it isn’t conscious.

The film shares a humour and tone with In Bruges. ‘Once Upon a Time in Ireland’ maybe, like a fucking fairytale. But it isn’t just because of Gleeson. He plays the complete opposite of his character in In Bruges. Nor that John Michael McDonagh, the film’s writer/director, is the brother of the writer/director of In Bruges, Martin McDonagh. It’s the way the dialogue plays out. The script wouldn’t be out of place on the stage. Scenes are based around long conversations, riffing on a certain theme or stimulus, taking turns and shooting off on tangents like a natural conversation. This isn’t film dialogue, but neither is it naturalistic.

It’s not very considerate to compare. Especially with a first time director, and to his brother at that. But it’s almost unavoidable. The Guard stands shoulder-to-shoulder with In Bruges. Both make swearing an art, and Gleeson an indie hero.


Oli Davis

365 Days, 100 Films

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