“The Guard” is not a fish-out-of-water buddy cop comedy. It sure looks like one on the surface and that’s certainly how it’s being advertised. Yet John Michael McDonagh’s new crime flick is really marvelously gray character study, led by one of the best character actors working today. Brendan Gleeson’s Sergeant Boyle is one of the most intriguing and well-constructed onscreen policemen we’ve seen in the last few years. Thematically dark and morally ambiguous, “The Guard” creates a richly inflected portrait of a lawman standing alone in the gloomy Galway landscape.
Boyle is another variation on the unflappable and melancholy theme Gleeson has been exploring recently. On the one hand there are his characters in the films of McDonagh’s brother, Martin. In “Six Shooter” and “In Bruges” the actor is placed opposite a loose cannon and serves as the grounded foil to Rúaidhrí Conroy and Colin Farrell. Those unstable and emotionally volatile figures have been taken out of the equation in “The Guard,” and Don Cheadle’s FBI Agent Wendell Everett serves more to illustrate the futility and naivete of any police idealism than present an equally developed counterpart in the narrative. This is Gleeson’s film, from start to finish.
The character is somewhere between the hard-edged hit man of “In Bruges” and the bumbling cop in his son’s recent short film “Noreen.” Yet there’s a sense of humor that ties it all together. Boyle’s upfront and baldly misinformed racism, his bemused demeanor when confronting corrupt cops and inept criminals and his complete lack of conversational self-control is the sort of ribald confrontational comedy at which Gleeson is now expert. It not only undermines both typical American humor and over-serious cop films, as McDonagh explains, but it also goes a long way to create a unique identity for the protagonist and the film as a whole.
Yet Boyle is not the sort of hero that will openly and clearly discuss his history, motivations and impressions in front of an audience. McDonagh and Gleeson build the character in much more subtle ways, with the humorous inflection serving only as one component. His entire persona is a pragmatic gray area not unlike the Galway landscape that he patrols. Most American cop heroes either follow common morality to the letter or are flawed and treated as a tragic figure. Boyle, on the other hand, spends an entire sequence cavorting with prostitutes. It’s funny, oddly endearing, and doesn’t hamper our attraction to his character at all.
The film doesn’t so much have an ambiguous morality as it creates a world in which conventional codes of conduct make effectively no sense. Our hero’s sexual impropriety, willingness to supply his aging mother with illegal drugs and blatant racial slurs only cement him as the single character in the film without any sort of illusionary worldview. He’s like a Western frontier hero who understands the ways of remote Galway and its inhabitants and refuses to trick himself into believing the integrity of a blatantly corrupt Garda or entirely impotent FBI. McDonagh’s introduction of the naïve Agent Everett only highlights the futility of a clear definition of heroism and justice. This is a world with IRA weapons in the reeds, Green Card marriages and available narcotics, none of which are presented as dramatically horrendous problems.
As a result, the film spends much of its time turning the standard tropes of the buddy comedy and the police thriller upside down. Again much like a Western hero, Sergeant Boyle’s eventual choice to aid the FBI in their pursuit of a major drug bust comes only when he has been touched personally by the rampaging criminals. Yet even at that point, as Boyle returns to his well-pressed uniform and mission to serve the community, there’s a darkly comic sensibility. He’s not John Wayne, although he has a similar take on race. He’s a lawman for a post-modern understanding of ethics and judgment, simultaneously mysterious and obnoxiously chatty. Let’s hope Gleeson and the McDonagh brothers continue crafting variations on this fascinating figure, this melancholy Irish cowboy with a dirty mouth.
“The Guard” opens Friday in limited release.
Recommended If You Like: “In Bruges”; “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”; “Miller’s Crossing”