The Guard (2011)

The McDonagh brothers of Irish cinema are both the antithesis of and spiritual successors to the Coen brothers. They may produce their own separate work. But they each retain much of the hallmarks of a similar formula by the Coens — that of a wit- and dialogue-driven, dark humor narrative. While deserving of independent observation and terrific as a standalone, in keeping with comparisons, The Guard (written and directed by John Michael) is a lighter-toned answer — and companion piece of sorts — to Martin McDonagh’s debut, In Bruges.

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It is incumbent on you, and imperative that you do yourself the favor of watching both at some point, and with no consideration to order of release. Go on, treat yourselves. I can attest to the wildly enjoyable viewing being free of any handy-me-down undertones because I learned of the relation between the minds behind the works after seeing The Guard three times, with the first coming before I heard of In Bruges. And by the time I watched both, I immediately harked back to the former.

Not in front of the American

Brendan Gleeson plays an obnoxious police sergeant (Boyle) in a rural Irish district who happens upon what is initially deemed a serial murder. Don Cheadle as an FBI agent (Everett) is called in to lend expertise in intercepting a drug vessel that may pass through the area. The two investigations eventually prove deeply connected. Far from the rundown buddy comedy, the two leads are here shown to be more than incompatible parts struggling against culture shock. Containing none of the elements to typify it as a Keystone variation of the theme, it produces a long lost authenticity that is more grounded in interaction than familiar skits and loosely tied sketches. Comedy historically has always suffered from the similar afflictions that plague sloppy horrors in their over-reliance on their respective variations of shock. You have jump scares on one side and lewd and crude punchlines in opposite. Not that the symptoms are absent, but that The Guard triumphs in the silences between exchanges, and the genuine disbelief at what’s just been said. It gives rise to irrepressible humanity in the mechanically by-the-book Everett and the unintentionally coarse Boyle, alike.

Racism is part of my culture

It must not go unstated that while both the stars and the supporting characters are more than what the preconception of their stereotypes may suggest, it does not stop the script from poking fun at them. Political correctness is valiantly defied throughout, and what works is rather a genuine oblivion of and an utter lack of regard to the potential otherness of those from a different bubble. To its credit, the film doesn’t play up any stereotype while going for the easy layup. It acknowledges their existence, and feigns the intention of pushing their corresponding buttons. The results are a deluge of hilarious faux pas and misunderstandings that are presented with the added realism of occasional undetectability by the addressees. Agendas are the farthest of intentions, and thank God it is never implied nor urged that viewers choose a side, knowing how in life we are hardwired to. And seeing how viewer identification in some scenes is inevitable, nothing is mocked except maybe our very own human imperfection. It’s all an act. But the illusion and subtlety are masterfully made real by the confluence of efforts from a supporting cast totally buying into the vision of the man in the director’s seat.

There are men behind the men

Excepting an ensemble piece, as much as a supporting cast’s impact is often overlooked in any work, so is the background ambience lingering behind. There aren’t many non-speaking part extras loitering nearby. But there is a myriad of side characters each pitching in with a memorable scene. The whores. The goons. The cops. And the colorful townsfolk. Noteworthy are Boyle’s mother and McBride’s wife in providing the heartwarming respite from cynicism that never threatens to undercut the sarcastic underpinnings. So for a duo centric affair, the secondary performers do pull their weight. Make no mistake, Cheadle and Gleeson are the stars of the show. But they’re not the sole scene stealers.

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The music is the work of the wonderful Calexico. When I realized that in the credit roll, I was delightfully unsurprised. They’ve been featured in movies before, but I guess it is only recently that they’ve been tasked to helm entire soundtracks. It may seem out of place to insert a Latin sound in rural Irish landscapes. But the virtuosity is in line with both the unorthodoxy of Boyle’s demeanor and the enduring novelty of The Guard among comedies of late.