A few days ago in my review of 2011, I mentioned that one of the films of last year I wanted to see – but hadn’t – was The Guard. Well last night I rectified that situation. And I’m truly glad that I did, because it’s easily one of the best films of last year… indeed it’s easily one of the best films of the last few years.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh and starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, the basic plot involves an FBI Agent (Cheadle) assigned to the West of Ireland and teaming up with a local cop (Brendan Gleeson) to investigate a massive drug-smuggling operation. On the surface – and indeed based on the publicity surrounding the film – you get the impression it’ll probably be a gentle, whimsical buddy-cop comedy. You could almost write the thing yourself… backwards Connemara guard annoys big city agent with his slow, rural ways and naive casual racism before demonstrating the quaint wisdom of those ways and foiling the smugglers. Ultimately of course, both rural cop and big city agent learn something from one another.
Because I’m such a massive fan of Gleeson, I still wanted to see The Guard despite the concern that it would be an underwhelming cliché of a film. The trailer only makes the vaguest of hints that, actually, that’s most certainly not the movie we’re talking about…
In fact, it’s a glorious subversion of that lazy archetype. This is nicely conveyed by the very first scene which concludes with Gleeson’s guard, at the scene of a fatal car wreck, dropping a hit of acid and intoning, “what a beautiful fucking day”. It was at that moment I realised I was in for something far less conventional than I’d expected. The Guard does a good job of resisting the temptation to romanticise The West beyond recognition and is most definitely set in modern Ireland as opposed to that timeless Hollywood Ireland that plagues many films. At the same time, it doesn’t shy away from presenting the viewer with the stark beauty of Connemara. The financial crisis, thankfully, hasn’t messed up the scenery.
The screen chemistry between Cheadle and Gleeson is an absolute joy, though it’s very much Gleeson’s film. He discusses Russian literature and amyl nitrate with his dying mother, spins wild yarns about his exploits as an Olympic athlete, cavorts with prostitutes, has a casual chat with the local IRA man (a cameo by the excellent Pat Shortt) and drinks pretty much constantly. And all the while he delights in winding up the FBI man… “Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, those men are armed and dangerous and you being an FBI agent, you’re more used to shooting unarmed women and children”.
On top of the excellent performances by all involved however, the film elevates itself above the run-of-the-mill fare I’d been expecting, thanks to the wonderful script and plot. I’d never encountered the work of John Michael McDonagh before (in fact, aside from being the writer of a 2003 remake of Ned Kelly, which I never saw, this is his first foray into feature films… we can expect good things from this man). But his regular confounding of my expectations throughout the film was very welcome indeed. I shan’t elaborate and risk spoiling them, but events do not transpire as they normally would in this kind of film. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece of avant-garde film-making, radically redefining the very notions of narrative. Far from it. I’m just saying that so far as mainstream film-making goes, there are quite a few surprises along the way. And sadly, that’s unusual these days.
If I have one concern it’s that I’m not sure whether some of the humour, which at turns is both dry and broad, might not go over the heads of non-Irish viewers… Gleeson’s Galway accent is good for a Dublin man, though it’s not so thick as to be incomprehensible… but the cultural references which would give a chuckle to most of us here in Ireland might not translate (such as the line about going undercover with the mob and “having to go down to Limerick for that sort of excitement”). But I don’t think there’s too many of them; certainly not enough to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the film; and ultimately I can offer an unconditional recommendation for The Guard. It’s funny, surprising, well-written and wonderfully acted. It has plenty of charm without being twee and while it’s not “a feel good” movie, it definitely leaves you feeling good. If you know what I mean.
Check it out.