Saturday, September 3, 2011

Forget the Donuts, Pass Me a Pint - "The Guard" Review

In 2008, director Martin McDonagh made his feature-length directorial debut with the uproarious and dark In Bruges.  It's rare to find a film as well-balanced and just downright cool as In Bruges, a film that I consider a modern classic.  Besides its incredible cast of Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes, who each deliver a mesmeric performance; In Bruges has an incredible sense of place (so much so that tourism in Bruges has jumped 300% since its release).

The wait for McDonagh's follow-up to his debut film has been excruciating, with no immediate news of a release on the horizon.  However, as it turns out, there isn't just one filmmaker in the McDonagh family.  Martin has a brother, John Michael McDonagh, who might just be the answer to my lingering need for a spiritual sequel to the film I love so much.

John Michael McDonagh's feature-length directorial debut The Guard brings back Brendan Gleeson, this time in the starring role, almost in a direct answer to my desires.  There are countless similarities between The Guard and In Bruges, mainly in its delicious dialogue and great characterization of a setting, but the main distinguishing difference is in the style.  Whereas In Bruges was a slick hit-man comedy, The Gaurd instead revels in its divine sense of pure malaise.

The film starts off in a way that might set the wrong impression of what's to come.  A red convertible blasts its way down a winding country road.  The drivers are intoxicated, loud, and clearly not from the area, Ireland's Galway County.  The youths speed past local guard (cop) Gerry Boyle, played by the always-charming Brendan Gleeson, who barely seems to even register their misdeeds.

Then, as if Ireland itself was expelling a virus, the rambunctious drivers are revealed to have crashed horribly against the barren landscape.  McDonagh clearly establishes the rules The Guard is going to play by; there will be none of that loud, overcranked, hyper-editing here.  As Gerry reports the crash and slowly leans over one of the recently deceased bodies to remove a bag of drugs, before taking a hit, we learn everything we need to know about his character.

Gleeson's Gerry might be one of the first characters whose ability to act heroically comes purely from his sense of boredom and annoyance with those seeking to upset his well-established sense of order.  That's not to say that Gerry is a terrible cop, he has an indomitable sense of loyalty to his role as a guard, but just that he doesn't necessarily play by the rules he is meant to uphold.

Whether he is indulging in drug-use, breaking his mother out of her nursing home, or sleeping with kinky prostitutes, it is always done playfully.  Gerry is side-splitting, offensive, and completely loveable.  Brendan Gleeson flexes every acting muscle, and funny bone, that he can muster to give what is my favorite performance so far this year.  Gleeson is able to render every moment where Gerry might come off poorly, and there are plenty, as just another reason to absolutely adore the character.

Before long, Gerry finds himself on the trail of an international cocaine-smuggling ring with the help of Wendell Evertt, played by Don Cheadle, an American FBI agent who has no time or patience for Gerry's eccentricities.  The two work wonderfully together, allowing Cheadle to play the straight-man to just about every other character in the film.  It is fun to see the buddy-cop movie inverted in a way that casts the younger character as the conservative, straight-shooting part of the duo.

What makes this dynamic work so well is the attitude of all the other characters in the film, good and bad.  Not a single character in the film seems content with their line of work, almost doing everything because it's their obligation.

Take the drug gang for example.  While the leader is waxing philosophically and quoting Nietzsche, one of his partners, played by Mark Strong, complains about the idiots he has to work with and about the actual duties the job entails.  When discussing lifting a freshly murdered body he complains, "I don't do manual labor.  When I applied for this job of international drug smuggler, it didn't say anything about heavy lifting."

The Guard knows its themes well and expresses them  with an incredible focus, only becoming ambiguous when it wants to be.  By the end of the film, Gerry must confront death and reaffirm his loyalties in a world that suddenly calls him to act.  It manages to not only be a fantastic crime film, but a moving and wonderful character piece as well.  The humor never detracts from the characterization or storytelling, making The Guard that rare film that is completely balanced and complete in every way a great movie should be.

3.5 / 4 Reels


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