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A marvelous gem of black-humor and unique characters - Fargo in coastal Ireland
on August 31, 2011
The Guard, a small independent film from Ireland written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, is something of a gem. On the surface, it could fall into any number of the usual categories - crime drama, fish-out-of-water story, odd couple forced to work together buddy flick - but none of those labels would do it proper justice. The closest thing I can truly compare it to is the Coen brothers' film Fargo. Like Fargo, The Guard deals with a homicide in a quiet rural area (in this case coastal Ireland instead of Minnesota) being investigated by the local authority (in this case an idiosyncratic Garda - Irish policeman - instead of a highly pregnant sheriff). But also like Fargo, what makes the film truly interesting is the character studies that unfold as we see both sides - the police and the criminals - going about their missions.
And in a final comparison to Fargo and to Coen brothers films in general, the dialogue is frequently priceless. At the film's center is the guard of the title, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), an Irish policeman stationed in the district of Connemara on the western coast of Ireland. In the opening scene, where Boyle witnesses a car accident on a rural road where some local youths are killed, we quickly learn three things about Boyle - very little ever rattles him, he's definitely more attuned to the spirit of the law than the letter, and he's far from being above the occasional bit of self indulgence. Shortly after that, when he's investigating an apparent murder and having to break in a new partner, Aidan McBride (Rory Keenan) at the same time, we learn something else about Boyle: he delights in being a crude, rude, pain in the ass to just about everyone, deliberately goading or provoking people just to see how they'll react.
The plot deepens when an American FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) shows up, tracking an international drug-smuggling operation who's rumored to be in the district planning a drop, and it turns out that Boyle's murder victim is connected to the drug gang. From that point things quickly become a tangle of murder, bribery, blackmail and deception as Boyle and Everett try to close in on the gang before the drop can be pulled off and the gang in turn does everything they can to get the two out of the way so that they can make their pick-up without interference.
But it's the characters and their interactions along the way that really drive The Guard and make it a cut above the usual crime drama fare. Gleeson's Boyle is a delight to watch - alternating between charming and sensitive one moment and poke-in-the-eye offensive the next - and you can tell Gleeson is having a lot of fun playing him, like when a freckle-faced boy asks him what a derringer he found is for and Boyle replies "It's for shooting small Protestants." A touching sub-plot reveals yet another side to Boyle. His mother, Eileen (marvelously played by Fionnula Flanagan) is in a local hospice, apparently with some form of terminal cancer. The scenes between mother and son are both darkly funny and moving, and you can see where Boyle gets his life-on-my-terms approach to things.
Don Cheadle's by-the-book straight-laced Everett is the straight man to many of Boyle's jabs but he handles the role well, managing to be funny without being ridiculous. One great scene comes when Everett finally sees through Boyle's "Ugly Irishman" game and Boyle realizes it and just grins, the exchange all through facial expressions. Another great scene has Everett tromping through the Connemara countryside trying to question residents who refuse to speak to him in anything but Gaelic (translated in subtitles so that you know what they're saying while Everett does not, adding to the comic effect).
The members of the drug gang - two Irishmen, Francis Sheehy (Liam Cunningham) and Liam O'Leary (David Wilmot), and an Englishman, Clive Cornell (a stand-out performance by Mark Strong) - are particularly engaging in their scenes. Like one where they're driving along killing time debating the merits of various philosophers based on nationality, or another where they're in a local aquarium and Cornell is staring thoughtfully at the glass and comments "I like sharks. They're... soothing." Or yet another where Cornell delivers a pay-off and flies into a devastatingly sarcastic rant when asked if the money's all there. Other characters add to the color, including a cowboy-hat wearing IRA man embarrassed over a missing cache of weapons, a pale-faced camera-flashing local youth who apparently has a fetish for crime scenes, a pint-sized boy disappointed that Cheadle's FBI man isn't with the Behavioral Science Unit he's seen on TV (apparently the only thing that's going to impress anyone in the district), and a couple of cheery uniformed prostitutes who liven up Boyle's day off.
About the only cautions I would mention are that the accents - Irish and English - are a bit on the thick side, and the ending does involve one ambiguous outcome. It's well set up and you could come down on either side of it, but it's deliberately left unclear.
Other than that though, I highly recommend The Guard as a film well worth catching and John Michael McDonagh as a writer/director worth following.