Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Review: The Guard

The Guard (c) 2011 Reprisal Films.

 Martin McDonagh directed one of my favorite gangster films of recent years in 2008, In Bruges. The new film The Guard is written and directed by his brother, John Michael McDonagh. I'm mentioning this trivia tidbit because the brothers seem to share both a great sense of humour as well as true directing and screenwriting skills. There are also a lot of other similarities. These two films are both the debut features of the brothers, who have made their skills as playwrights. Both films are crime stories that seem like comedies laughing at crime genre's conventions at first, but turn out to harbor a dark, melancholy punch in them. But as a filmmaker shouldn't be judged by his family, let's take a closer look at John Michael's film.

In the Irish coastal town of Connemara the local police ("Garda") sargeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is taking it easy. He steals LSD from car crash victims, goes to the pub in the middle of his working day to get wasted and play video games, and uses his day off to buy services from two prostitutes. His new partner Aidan McBride (Rory Keenan) would have him rather try to solve the horrifying murder of a low-life thug. Also the FBI has sent the American agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to the village to investigate drug-trafficing set to happen. Boyle still doesn't care. He doesn't just have an authority problem, he likes to piss everyone off. The big city cop Aidan and the black American agent Wendell only listen to him continuously insult them, because Boyle actually could solve both cases if he would just bother to do it.

The film is mostly Brendan Gleeson's time to shine, and he does seem to have a lot of fun in his role as a foul-mouthed, jaundiced, but also very intelligent crime-solver. Boyle has seen all the movies before, and is quick to give a tongue-lashing to anyone using clichéd police dialogue. He actually has a lot in common with the film's villains,  the smugglers played by Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham. They also like to insult their co-workers and take the piss off their profession, but are still book-smart enough to discuss philosophy when we first meet them. The only difference is that the smugglers are cold-blooded murderers that enjoy killing, while deep down Boyle does have some ethics. Boyle is the way he is because his life is in the autumn years and everything he feels has an air of melancholia in it. He also likes to play dumber than he is. The moments where he pretends to be a huge racist just to try get Everett to lose his temper, are among the film's funniest.

McDonagh does know his genres, and shamelessly mixes them up. The laughing at crime film clichés is reminiscent of Hot Fuzz and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and the bad police character is almost like Torrente's smarter Irish cousin. The film is often shot like a spaghetti western, with big close-ups and Morricone-like mariachi music. But there are no wide scenery shots. McDonagh keeps all the film's action happening close to the characters.

And you know what I mean by 'action'.
The western thematic works well, because McDonagh pictures Connemara to be just as lawless as a frontier city. Criminals are allowed to play around the city as they please and the low amount of police forces can't do much to help it. And as it turns out, Boyle is actually among the more honest of them anyway. When a new sherrif enters to clean the corrupt town, he is met with contempt by the locals (also probably because of his race). It certainly isn't a nice town, which is why McDonagh shoots it in gloomy shades of grey. All of it is already dead.

Rather than in the fate of his village, Boyle is a lot more concerned about his terminally ill mother (Fionnulla Flanaghan). They both try to take their final meets with their brand of humour, altough they both know the time is short. In a way, Boyle's grief is also a big block in the way that stops him to do what he can to help. It is left for the viewer to decide whether the character has lost his original ideals, or whether he became a cop just for the power, but has gotten bored with it. Either way, Boyle has also the same kind of disregard for himself as he has for others. It is not maybe surprising that such a character would get a chance of redemption, but at least it is well grounded in the script.

The film was premiered at Love & Anarchy festival this year, but lucky for us, it also got a wider release. We can expect the McDonagh brothers to do grand things.


Director & Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
Director of Photography: Larry Smith
Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Rory Keenan, Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, David Wilmot, Fionnulla Flanagan

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