John Michael McDonagh’s dark comedy-thriller The Guard (2011) is, the “most successful independent Irish film of all time”, grossing over €4.3 million. (IFTN) Starring Brendan Gleeson as the dead-pan Sergeant Gerry Boyle and Don Cheadle as FBI agent Wendell Everett, small time Irish policing and big time American law enforcement come together to solve an intriguing murder and intercept a multi-million dollar drug deal on the West Coast of rural Ireland.
It’s the classic culture clash set up. Boyle is the sweary, corrupt bad but essentially good cop to Everett’s by the book, big city law man. It’s this dynamic that creates The Guard’s darkly comic backbone. There is some well-observed Irish humour with Cheadle, as the outsider, being the butt of most of the jokes. However, for me it’s Boyle’s unorthodox approach to law enforcement that delivers the most laughs.
As a subversive slow-burn thriller I found it comparable to McDonaugh’s most recent film Calvary (2014). In both Gleeson plays an unconventional authority figure, in charge of and yet at the mercy of a small, rural community he is bound to protect. Both films also rely on the presentation of a ramshackle almost caricatured version of Ireland: “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture”.Yet while at times cheap stereotypes seem to prevail in The Guard, it is Gleeson’s sensitive portrayal of Boyle which reaches beyond character type and adds real emotional depth. The scenes between Boyle and his mother, while slightly rushed and oddly positioned throughout the film demonstrate Gleeson’s emotional range and instinctive acting style. Moreover, The Guard mixes styles and genres, borrowing from the Western in the final scenes of the showdown. The spaghetti western orchestral score playing over Boyle arming himself up for war in his Garda uniform reaffirms his position as the renegade cowboy, an outsider, a maverick, on the side of good but firmly on his terms.
McDonaugh’s washed-out cinematography creates an interesting and indie-esque canvas. The frequent use of long-shots is particularly effective, framing the action against the bleakly beautiful landscape that continually grounds the film. At times, however, the use of colour feels over done. The over exposure of colours, particularly green, leaves the Emerald Isle looking more of a neon highlighter tinge. Indeed McDonaugh seems torn between lo-fi indie images and more edgy graphics. The closing credits, for instance, seem more suited to a Tarantino movie and jar slightly with the underlying emotional subtlety of The Guard.
WINNER OF THE GUARDIAN’S FIRST FILM AWARD 2012