Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Guard

Considering the deep, generally unslaked thirst so many people I know have for movies that are just plain fun to watch—entertaining and absorbing without being too deep-dish or depressing—I’m surprised this delightful little black comedy hasn’t gotten more buzz. Fortunately, there’s still a little time to catch it before it slips out of the local theater—and if that doesn’t work, you can always look for it on Netflix, or whatever other service you’re using these days.

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s brother, Martin McDonagh, wrote and directed the similarly exhilarating In Bruges, which also costarred the magnificent Brendan Gleeson. The Guard isn’t as quirkily splendid as that brilliant little bit of business—this one is just a change nicely played on a well-worn theme—but it’s rooted in the same rich Irish loam.

In classic Dirty Harry style, Gleeson’s rogue cop (Sergeant Gerry Boyle of the Irish guard) breaks every rule in sight, teeters on the edge of suspension, and gets matched with another outsider (Don Cheadle’s Wendell Everett, a straitlaced FBI agent) in an odd-couple pairing that winds up as a true partnership as our flawed hero cracks the big case. But The Guard goes light on chase scenes and explosions and heavy on the wordplay and character development, creating a rich Irish stew that tempers deep sentimentality with smart skepticism and self-mocking wit.

The story is set in Connemara, but this is no tourist-board view of Galway. The action generally takes place at night or inside dark rooms, mostly shot in a strenuously anti-glamorous high-contrast, super-saturated style, with harsh, interrogation-strength lighting emphasizing the crags and crannies in Gleeson’s broad mug. When he’s not sitting in front of a supersized photo of water and swimmers (one of the many ways forms of foreshadowing the filmmakers have knit, mostly seamlessly, into the narrative), he’s often surrounded by some garish color, whether it’s the sickly green of his bedroom wall or the checkerboard floor and cherry-red accents of a faux-American diner.

There’s just one consistent exception: a freckle-faced little boy who keeps popping up on his bicycle, his disheveled dog in tow, always outdoors and filmed in rich colors. The heroic angles from which he is shot and the gorgeous landscapes that often stretch out behind him make him a symbolic, almost mythical figure: the sole witness to Boyle’s hidden heroism and maybe even the soul of the town.

But there’s nothing mythic about Boyle. Reaching inside his baggy briefs to scratch his balls as he stumbles across his bedroom one minute and drawing information out of his partner’s widow with surprising delicacy the next, Gleeson’s sergeant is a walking Rorschach test. Everyone with the sense to see his own carefully cached sensitivity trust and confides in him, while the rest heap him with abuse. He takes it all in with an air of bovine indifference, punctuated every now and then by a goofily mischievous grin.

Cheadle plays off Gleeson’s deceptive passivity beautifully, his sense of humor getting a rare and welcome airing as Everett goes into slow burns at Boyle’s bouts of apparently blissful insensitivity (“I’m Irish, sir,” he protests at one point. “Racism is part of my culture!”) Watching these two play off one another is one of the movie’s great pleasures.

Another is the interplay between the villains, especially Mark Strong’s tightly wound Clive Cornell and David Wilmot’s sociopathic Liam O’Leary, who looks and acts something like an ungroomed terrier. Between bouts of violence, the bad guys kill time Tarantino-style, comparing favorite philosophical quotes, parsing the fine points of each other’s statements, and chafing at the quality of the people they’re forced to put up with. “That’s the payoff, yeah?” Cornell hisses when his contact asks if all the money he promised is there. “That’s the dynamics of this situation. Why the f--- would I cheat you out of the money? … That would defeat the entire freaking purpose of the entire interaction!”

Every so often—including, unfortunately, in an ending that feels more canned than candid—the supple script strikes a false note, pulling you out of the story for a moment. But then someone says or does something so smart or touching or funny or all three that you’re immersed once again in this entertaining fable. After all, that’s the dynamics of this situation, right? And you can trust this crew to respect those dynamics.

Written for TimeOFF

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