“What a beautiful fookin’ day.”
With that greeting, Brendan Gleeson kicks off the dry-as-a-bone wicked Irish comedy written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, a film that lays its traps quietly, expertly performed and with a strong sense of voice and location. “The Guard” gives Brendan Gleeson one of the best roles he’s ever had, and he plays it perfectly. “The Guard” is one of the highlights of the year so far, and the sort of thing that could easily get lost in a weekend like this one.
That would be a shame.
Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a guy who has found his place in life and who enjoys what he’s carved out for himself. He likes his community. He likes his place in it. He likes who he works with, and he likes the work itself. When there’s a murder in his town on the same day he’s breaking in a new guy, Garda McBride (Rory Keenan), it’s the kick-off to a strange, twisted string of collisions and misunderstandings and calculated betrayals, and the way McDonagh orchestrates it all is masterful. His brother Martin McDonagh was the writer/director of “In Bruges,” and he’s a gifted playwright.
It’s important to note that “The Guard” has a voice that is different than Martin’s work, and John Michael has his own way of looking at the relationships between people and the petty struggles for power that define us. “The Guard” is a cop movie, it’s got some unlikely buddy film stuff in it after the introduction of FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), it’s a chess game, and it’s a small town UK comedy that reminds me of Bill Forsyth’s early work. Juggling all of that would overwhelm even an experienced director, but McDonagh’s only other film is a short from 11 years ago. This thing is so confident, so very well-constructed, and it goes down smooth from the very first frame to its absolutely perfect final shot.
The score by Calexico and the songs used on the soundtrack are incredible, and this is one of those movies where I can’t imagine it without this music. It’s all carefully placed, carefully used, and it isn’t what you’ve heard a thousand times before. And it’s not what I expected from this film, either, but that’s sort of true of every choice made for the film. I’ll say that they’ve probably claimed ownership of both “Ode To Billy Joe” and “Leaving On A Jet Plane” with the way they’re used here. Using a band known for punched up mariachi/Tejano music to score a film about Irish cops is kind of brilliant. Gleeson’s character is a guy who does things his own way, and the score fits that. It’s so resolutely not the thing you expect, but somehow, it fits perfectly. I consider Larry Smith one of the more exciting cinematographers making his way up the ranks in UK cinema these days, and his work here is as robust and vivid as his work in “Bronson.” He helps bring this town to life in a very particular way.
The chemistry between Gleeson and Cheadle is a real treat, and I love the way they take a fairly standard movie set-up (tight-assed by-the-book cop forced to work with looser-more-intuitive cop) and play riffs on it in each new scene like jazz musicians working a great melody. They tweak each other, they verbally fence, and they gradually reveal the complicated human beings beneath those initial descriptions. They gradually relax into their collaboration so that when they are finally, resolutely on the same side, it feels earned and honest.
With terrific supporting turns from Mark Strong, Fionnula Flanagan, and David Wilmot, among other, “The Guard” is rich and novelistic in its attention to detail and its ability to evoke time and place. It is a rewarding film, the sort that I know I’m going to go back to and share and keep thinking about, and I think it establishes McDonagh as a major voice in a minor key. I don’t want to see him absorbed by Hollywood and leashed up to some superhero movie or some remake of a sequel to a reboot. I just want him (and his brother) to stay where he is and keep making movies like this one, warm reminders of the evergreen merit of great characters and great storytelling. “The Guard” is almost old-fashioned in the methodical way it lays its cards on the table, and in today’s movie landscape, that feels positively cutting-edge.
“The Guard” opens in limited release today.