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‘The Guard’ – beyond a simple redemption tale

The Guard

Written by John Michael McDonagh

Directed by John Michael McDonagh

United Kingdom, 2011

A black comedy thriller with racism as the major means of laughter doesn’t necessarily sound like a great cinematic experience.  Director John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard is just that, featuring an excellent cast, effectively flat and off-kilter framing, and music that embraces the genre and its anomalous locale from Calexico.

McDonagh, brother of playwright and In Bruges director Martin McDonagh, does well to have his protagonist Detective Boyle (Brendan Gleeson, Gangs of New York, In Bruges) be less crotchety old Gran Torino-style racist, and more tongue-in-cheek rebel.

Boyle is the morally bankrupt, superficially naïve, ultimately honorable policeman of a small Irish town.  FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda, Crash) comes to town looking for a few big-time drug traffickers and the two men with opposite styles and methods are forced to work together.

It is ultimately Everett who best understands Boyle, telling him during a car ride, “I can’t tell if you’re really fucking stupid, or really fucking smart.”  Boyle plays this card throughout, and through Gleason’s superb, hilarious portrayal also arises a certain pathos and understanding between the two men of different races, cultures, backgrounds, and interpretations of the law.

It’s often difficult to tell if Boyle is acting out of some sort of twisted moral code, or simply in order to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.  He’s introduced sitting idly by as a car careens past him, only getting up to check the driver’s pulse and steal his drugs.  He sleeps with prostitutes on his day off and makes racist slurs during Everett’s initial presentation.  Still, he’s the lone cop to refuse a bribe, has a touching relationship with his mother (played excellently by Fionnula Flanagan) and is in the end the driving force behind the drug-related investigation.

It’s these complexities that move The Guard beyond a simple redemption tale.  It is no simple to task to determine what it is that pushes Boyle to act.  Is it simply because he’s sworn to be a police officer?  Is it his mother’s death?  That his own life is threatened?  His partner’s death?  The solidarity he finds with his partner’s wife?  All of these factors seem to contribute, but ultimately run slightly counter to perhaps the only answer: that doing his duty is what no one else is doing…so he will do it.

– Neal Dhand