dir: Steve McDonagh, 2011
I originally wanted to write this in the wake of watching director Steve McDonagh’s third effort, Calvary. Sadly, sloth got the best of ya boy and I ended up procrastinating like hell.
Anywho, it brings me joy to finally get this out. Mostly because this is one of my favorite films in recent memory and if you blinked, you most likely missed it.
Plot-wise, The Guard follows a local officer in Western Ireland whose township experiences a strange murder. This killing reveals a large scale drug operation, attracting both the local police and the FBI’s attention. Hijinks and drama ensue, all leading to a moonlight standoff on the docks. It’s simple enough, but it’s all the little bits in between that are great about this film.
First things first (and the film jokes about this), The Guard could’ve easily played as a “fish out of water” story, as told by FBI agent Wendell (Don Cheadle). It resists this trope however, and centers almost entirely on Boyle’s (Brendan Gleeson) point of view, making the film decidedly Irish while democratizing the narrative scope. In effect then, Wendell and Boyle get their moments to shine. Some of their best moments occur when The Guard inverts that fish-out-of-water mold, allowing us to see the assumed fish, rather than see the world from the fish’s point of view.
A beautiful example of this is when Wendell has to canvas the town on his own. His failed investigations lead him to encounter folk who only speak Gaelic, unbothered strollers, and one hungry horse.
The humor here is rooted in the film’s shirking all things American, even ridiculing it when it doesn’t fit a certain stereotype. Boyle himself does this on multiple occasions, poking fun at Wendell on matters of race, class, police work and more. The entire approach itself is deft because it subverts one of the most American tropes ever: the bi-racial buddy cop narrative. The craftiness of this is too great to not take note of.
Never forget though that the film itself is self-aware and in on the jokes it throws at you. Of particular note is the soundscape, especially in the final scenes: it’s thoroughly lifted from an old-time Western. There are many winks at American culture like this sprinkled throughout the film, from a character’s cowboy hat to Boyle’s love of Disney World. These little tips of the hat help keep the film’s playful rebukes of American culture as just that; like a cousin from another country questioning your lack of knowledge on on their hometown.
It’s also important to note McDonagh’s penchant for creating and executing dark humor. From Boyle’s mother suffering from cancer to Gleeson feeling up a dead body, McDonagh posits humor at increasingly absurd angles. Whether it’s from a character themselves or the construction of the situation, he manages to squeeze a laugh out of nearly every scene. At the same time however, he provides several dark moments that give you actual pause. This then acts as a balancing measure for both pathos and development.
It’s the combination of these two offerings that help prevent a completely cartoonish world from emerging, grounding the story in a believable reality with consequences.
Ultimately, this film is a romp that is sharply and consistently funny. The whole cast brings something to the table and it’s just damn fun to watch. If you haven’t already and you’re looking to venture into foreign film, this is a great place to start.
The Guard is streaming on Amazon and Youtube. You can also catch it snail mail via Netflix.
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope