Writer of Ned Kelly and brother of the writer director of the much-loved In Bruges, John Michael McDonagh, has followed his younger brother and taken to the director’s chair with his directorial debut in The Guard. This is a film where the lead character has just as much place in the synopsis as the actual plot. Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Glesson) is what you can only describe as an unorthodox policeman, he drinks when he is on duty, takes drugs partakes in casual sex with prostitutes and plays host to an un-politically correct set of ideals and morals. When he isn’t getting wasted and whoring it about, he is a small town police man trying to solve the murder in his neck of west coast Ireland. That on its own is a big enough crime for such a one horse town, but this crime grows much bigger than it first appeared thanks to its connection with a drug trafficking racket worth over half a billion dollars.
The Guard is primarily about Gerry Boyle’s personality and quirks and his relationship with FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) as it is about bringing the drug racket to justice. It would be asinine of me to describe the film as anything other than a comedy, still to describe it as such would overlook just how much is going on. The approach which John Michael McDonagh has used in the shooting of the film, especially through the cinematography means it has more in common with the western than the police thriller or comedy. This is because of the vast open, landscapes that are evocative of the classic western of days gone. Beyond the visual there are other aspects of the film that are also reminiscent of the western. Sans the opening rap-rock assault, a large proportion of the soundtrack is played on with an acoustic orchestra giving the film a sound like what you might hear in a spaghetti western composition from Ennio Morricone.
The story also resembles a western in the way that a mysterious trio ride into town and leave chaos in the wake. It might have a lot in common with the most quintessentially American of cinematic genres, but the guard is a blaring examples of anti-American sentiments. At many points throughout the wordy script there are many comments and exchanges about the Americanization of Irish and police culture. This is a thoroughly British take on two genres that either define or have become increasingly synonymous with American cinema. This is taken to great lengths from the obvious to the belligerent in the lo-fi interpretation of the inevitable climactic shoot-out.
This may be a busy film which can be watched and read in many ways but at the end of the day the guard is still a comedy. Many comedies throughout 2011 have their minds dragging through the gutter and because of that they have been utterly divisive between those who find gross out comedy funny and those who do not. The guard is divisive for another reason entirely and that is because it is an unequivocally offensive film. Along the way to the film’s conclusion the film offends parents, babies, black people, Mexicans, Americans, the elderly, the infirm, women, English people, the police and the Irish, if I dug deeper they will probably be more groups that the film offends but that list alone illustrates the point that this film places value on its offensive sense of humour. All of this is presented through the Brendan Gleeson’s character, but he delivers these offensive lines with the innocence of a small child which made it almost impossible for me not to laugh. Even when the film didn’t have me in stitches it always had me smiling.
The Guard is one of the more wordy releases from 2011 and there is one scene in particular where the film over stretches itself. It’s not a spoiler as it’s a scene where there isn’t a great deal happening, however in this scene there antagonists of the film are driving at night in the Irish countryside while there are debating their own interpretation of various philosophers including Nietzsche as well as talking about philosophers in general. This scene represents the worst qualities of the film in so much that it has a tendency to wander into pretentiousness as well as it being very slow-paced and overtly wordy take on a high action genre. There are other scenes where the philosophy comes into the film but it feels much more organic and character based filling out the characters as people and not the walking banks that the antagonists of such films tend to be. The guard may be about Gerry Doyle but there are scores of other equally unique characters.
With scores of great performances from the likes of Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham and an incredibly game Don Cheadle given the almost relentless racism he is faced with. Topping all of this is a career high performance from Glesson, his role may be one of the most divisive of the year but to see an actor of his standard enjoying himself so much is an unadulterated joy which I will be coming back to again and again. The way in which the elder McDonagh brother has made a multi-layered comedy that marries humour, satire and the tragedy leaving me in admiration.