The debut feature of playwright and screenwriter Jon Michael McDonagh, “The Guard” is a caustically funny Irish thriller that playfully stitches and recombines various styles and forms to an impudent and stylized result.
In many respects the parts are more successful than the whole. Very little of the movie has a moment of truth or realistic detail, but the manner is sharply developed out of the characterization, local color, thrilling situations and especially pungent dialogue.
The filmmaker is the younger brother of Martin McDonough (“In Bruges,” which opened the Sundance Film Fest several years ago). Michael relishes the same mixture of profane, verbose and slangy dialogue with an astringent edge and scabrous flair for violence and macabre wit.
But unfortunately he also shares his brother’s weakness for self-reflexive threads that prove to be clever though defeating. As a stylistic device remove from the material, it prevents the director from ever truly engaging the moral ramifications.
Largely, the film serves as a bravura showcase for the great Brendan Gleeson. He plays the eponymous sergeant of a stunningly beautiful Irish coastal village in the Gaelic-influenced western isles. He’s introduced in exaggerated close up, surveying the wreckage of a car accident and the young victims, pill popping thrill seekers who failed to negotiate a sharp curve. Their bodies strewn about, he looks about and says in unprintable dialogue, for exclamation, “What a great … day.”
Gleeson’s character is called Gerry Boyle, a shambling and flamboyant role, equal parts Falstaff and Quixote. He’s an inveterate hedonist with outsized vices and predilections, like a fondness for recreational drugs and prostitutes. Openly insubordinate of his superiors (“I thought only blacks, or Mexicans, were drug dealers,” he says), he holds attitudes that are charitably less than progressive or cultural enlightening.
He’s also one of those outrageously contradictory figures of Irish lore, a littérateur with little patience for the Russians and a cinephile (he’s caught one night watching Polish director Jerzy Skolimowsky’s great English film, “The Shout”).
The plot’s a mélange of familiar ideas and genre staples tossed about. McDonough is far less interested in traditional story structure than incident, form and style. He yokes together everything from the guard’s new partner, the big city naïf (Rory Keenan) with a personal secret, his beautiful, fragile Romanian wife (Katarina Cas) to the cross cultural buddy cop standard, here represented by the inscrutable and uptight American FBI agent, Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), who’s turned up in Boyle’s village to intercept an international drug smuggling ring.
The movie’s gangsters, an unholy trinity (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) who are unfortunately insufficiently employed in the proceedings, are also impressively drawn in miniature. These arrogant, self-regarding gents are colorfully rendered in small and sharp glances, like their fondness for quotations, references abound to Bertrand Russell and Nietzsche, or the unsavory nature of their business, or the considerable difficulty of making distinction between a psychopath and/or sociopath.
The plot moves fairly haphazardly. The gangsters project the necessary menace. The fun and pleasure develops more in the asides and off-color touches that say a lot about Ireland (though very little expressions about the country’s current economic meltdown). Gleeson is fantastic in the private exchanges and back and forth, like his conversation with a local IRA operative (Pat Shortt) who’s trying to return a cache of weapons. You have gay lads in the IRA, Boyle inquires, and the operative responds: “It’s the only way to infiltrate MI5.”
Though it’s a first film, McDonagh shows visual flair and talent as well. Working with a very good cinematographer, Larry Smith, he shoots impressively in widescreen format, drawing on the textures and scraggly formations of the landscapes and water with a verve and thrill. If the movie never quite becomes anything other than a lark, it is because the movie lacks a depth of feeling or nuance. The death of one of the film’s most appealing characters is particularly cruel in how easily it is disposed of.
The movie‘s tone is sometimes a bit awkward. One subplot, the cop‘s dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), seems imported from another work. The women, in general, are given exceedingly little to do.
Fortunately, the actors certainly grab your attention and infuse the movie with a sometimes jolting lift and buoyancy. It has a moment to moment color and style that floats along easily.
“The Guard” is smart and shrewd enough to acknowledge its limitations without ever trying to truly transcend them. It’s pleasurable film without being too deep.
By Patrick Z. McGavin