A seemingly dim, racist, coke snorting rural Garda officer in a sleepy Connemara seaside spot. Ruthless international drug smugglers versus an FBI agent sent to Ireland to weed them out. No contest. The Garda man bates the lot of them.
John Michael McDonagh’s feature debut as director, The Guard owes a lot to brother Martin’s In Bruges (which also starred Brendan Gleeson), but, in terms of confounding expectations about plot and character, it exceeds the norms of so-called 'black' comedy, a term that goes back to Ealing’s The Ladykillers and forward to the Coen Brothers.
The Guard exceeds those norms because, as Gardai Gerry Boyle (Gleeson) is fond of saying when being crass and grossly offensive to the black, middle class FBI agent assigned to Ireland (Don Cheadle) 'Ach, I was only messin’ wit’ you.'
McDonagh, too, is also messin’ with the audience. His protagonist may be a boorish hick on the surface, and a willing confidante of the local Republican dissidents on the side, but deep down he is honest (in a bent, hedonistic sort of way).
Boyle is a typically Irish hero: likeable but complex and often hypocritical. For example, he is well read (discussing Goncharov, Dostoevsky and Gogol with his terminally ill mother) while still having a poster of Daniel O’Donnell on his wall.
The Guard is, essentially, an Irish Western, as the soundtrack demonstrates with a Tex-Mex ambience. And by the time of the rightfully ambiguous ending, McDonagh shows Boyle standing alone is in the great High Noon tradition, doing what a man’s gotta do. Mebbe.
It’s the classic story of the local sheriff up against the out-of-depth dude from the East (the FBI agent) and the baddies rolling into town. Those baddies are three world weary, existentialist killers who can flip from arguing about Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell to killing a Garda newbie in one scene alone.
And when one of them, Liam Cunningham, does have a single scene with Boyle (De Niro and Pacino in Heat, eat your hearts out) in, appropriately, a US style diner, the conversation is about one of the great questions of Western philosophy: what was thrown off the Tallahassee Bridge by Billy Joe McAllister?
So far, so Quentin Tarantino. But where Tarantino is content to show how clever he is by throwing in pop culture quotes galore, McDonagh makes references to the likes of CSI and Criminal Minds before dismissing them playfully.
The Guard is as film that embraces cultural tropes and yet doesn’t succumb to them. It is violent, incredibly sweary and yet somehow manages to offend my PC sensibilities while at the same time making me laugh at them. It is both original and as genuinely Irish as Playboy of the Western World.
McDonagh's The Guard will, er, catch you off guard. Why? Because, as beautifully filmed and directed as it is, this is a writer’s film.
The Guard is in cineplexes from July 8 and at QFT from July 29.