Police Sergeant Gerry Boyle takes time off from investigations into murders and drug dealings in his district in the wild west of Ireland to relax with a couple of friends, although with Boyle it seems to be more a matter of his having to force himself to take time off from relaxing with friends to investigate crimes. Brendan Gleeson, as Boyle, with Dominque McElliogott and Sarah Greene in the comic thriller The Guard.
It’s better we don’t know.
Director-screenwriter John Michael McDonagh’s comic thriller The Guard is like an Elmore Leonard novel transported straight to the movie screen. In fact, it’s so much like an Elmore Leonard novel that I’m half-tempted to call it the best film adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel not based on any actual Elmore Leonard novel.
It’s set in the modern wild west of Ireland, County Galway, instead of Miami or Detroit but it has many of the other signatures of a Leonard novel. A matter of fact, almost casual, but somehow not cynical attitude towards violence, crime, and corruption. A plot centered around a crime that isn’t clever, romantic, spectacular, or at all unusual, that is only interesting because of the potential for murder and mayhem that might result. A comic take on human nature that has us laughing at things we know ought to appall us and sympathizing with characters we know we ought to fear, loathe, and despise. It’s very Leonard-esque of McDonagh to have us sort of liking a character who’s already murdered another character we liked and is about to try to kill the hero and even have us feel a little sorry for the mope while we’re taking anticipatory satisfaction in knowing he’s going to get what’s coming to him and how he’s going to get it. Villains who are charismatic and intelligent and at the same time really dumb. Other villains who are dumb but at the same time unexpectedly intelligent. And a protagonist whose relationships with law and order, goodness and righteousness are at best problematic.
The unironically white-hatted U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (now of the TV series Justified, where he’s grown more morally conflicted, but originally of the novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, where he plays second lead to the bookie Harry Arno) is an anomaly among Leonard’s heroes and something of an inside joke between Leonard and his fans as he’s been clearly roped in from one of Leonard’s westerns. More typical---and to my mind the best---of Elmore’s anti-heroes is Chili Palmer, the leg-breaker turned movie producer in Get Shorty.
In The Guard, McDonagh gives us Irish cop, Sergeant Gerry Boyle, who is to put it mildly, no Raylan Givens, at least not at first glance. Or second or third glance either. Boyle seems to take little interest in his job, doesn’t care one way or another about the citizens he’s sworn to serve and protect, can hardly be bothered to investigate a murder in his jurisdiction, spends his days off enjoying the company of prostitutes he pays to wear police uniforms and “arrest” him, is deliberately obnoxious, provocative, insulting, and racist---“I’m Oirish, sar. Racism is part of me contract.”---isn’t above taking drugs off a corpse for his personal recreational use, and when a young officer from his squad disappears he treats the matter as if it was somebody else’s problem that will probably go away if he just ignores it.
Another way The Guard is like a Leonard novel is that its story is carried along mainly through dialog. Leonard doesn’t give his readers much in the way of description or exposition. McDonagh doesn’t spend time setting up pretty pictures. Galway being Galway, some breathtaking post card shots appear now and again, probably not accidentally but only incidentally. Like Leonard’s, McDonagh’s characters rarely shut up, and also like Leonard’s they talk to each other not to us. Since they know things about each other and what’s going on, they don’t waste words exchanging what’s to them old news for our benefit. The three bad guys know the logistics of the cocaine shipment they’re plotting. Boyle and his superiors know why they dislike and distrust each other. Boyle and his mother know the nature of her illness, her course of treatment, the ups and downs of their relationship over the years, what happened to his father, and what it was like to have had her for a mother and have raised him as a son. They don’t need to go over it all again with just so that we know it too. They give clues and drop hints, but by the by, and we’re left to infer as best we can.
On top of this, Boyle has made it practically a religion to keep things to himself. His reply to a murderer’s taunt---Murderer: How many moorders have ye had in the last twenty-foor hours? Boyle: That’s for us to know and you to find out.---might as well be his life’s motto. He’s not about to tell us any more than he’d tell a moorderer and there’s a lot that’s for him to know and us to find out. This means that questions about characters’ pasts, the details of their plots and schemes, their connections with one another, and what they know or don’t know about what’s happening to them and around them don’t get answered, including one big one left hanging at the end.
And like I said up top, it’s better that we don’t know.
There’s a big difference between a typical Leonard novel and The Guard, though. Leonard’s male leads, no matter how morally, ethically, or legally compromised, are still leading men who can be played in a movie by the likes of George Clooney, John Travolta, Owen Wilson, Burt Reynolds, and Robert Forster. Gerry Boyle is played by Brendan Gleeson and the only handsome thing about him is his hair. When he bothers to comb it.
In the person of Gleeson, Boyle is fat, dough-faced, a bit jug-eared, and deep into a grouchy middle-age. Gleeson is tall and blocky and he gives the impression that he can be an immovable object but he doesn’t let on whether he can also be, like Mad-Eye Mooney whom he played in the Harry Potter movies, an irresistible force as well. We hardly ever see him in motion. McDonagh usually places him already in the frame at the beginning of scenes and leaves him standing or sitting still throughout. When he does move, we mostly see him from the shoulders up or in a quick glimpse as he slides into the frame from the lower corner. We’re left to judge Boyle entirely by Gleeson’s face, and, saints presoorve us, what a face himself has!
It’s an amazingly expressive mug, although for a good deal of the movie Gleeson uses it to express amusing and subtle variations on irritation and annoyance. Another frequent expression is bewilderment. What tends to bewilder him is why other people are offended or appalled by the offensive and seemingly dumb things he says. But how much of this is an act? Several times other characters tell Boyle they can’t decide if he’s as dumb as he appears or if he’s pretending, and his eyes will light up with mischief. We can guess what he’s thinking: That’s for me to know and you to find out. But Gleeson plays it cagey with us too. We know he’s not dumb, but he won’t give us enough to let us judge just how smart he is. We also know that the offensiveness is a gambit to keep others off-balance and to push them away emotionally. He doesn’t want to make sympathetic connections if he doesn’t have to. Gleeson brogue thickens when Boyle’s playing dumb or deliberately trying to piss someone off. But that’s it. Besides the brogue, the only other thing he gives us to go on in trying to decide what’s really going on inside his head is his grin.
He has a grin like an elf drawing an inside straight in a poker game with Santa with the sleigh and all eight reindeer in the pot.
I really wanted to make a leprechaun joke there.
But Boyle never shows us his cards. We can’t tell for sure if he’s bluffing. Which puts us in the same predicament as FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) who’s come over from the United States to coordinate an attempt to intercept a cocaine shipment with the Irish police---The Guard of the Irish Peace, in English, Garda Síochána na hÉireann, in Gaelic, the Garda, for short. The FBI’s information is that the coke will ship out of Boyle’s district, so Boyle should be a key part of the investigation, if not at least nominally in charge of it. But some hotshots from Dublin have come up to take over, pushing Boyle to the sidelines, much to his relief and delight---there’s that grin again, hinting that Boyle has won another hand. But for some reason, Everett ignores the Dublin hotshots and keeps reaching out to Boyle for help.
It could be that like us, Everett has no one else to latch onto. The Dublin hotshots seem impressed by Everett, or at least by his status as an American and an agent of the FBI, and willing to follow his lead. But either he has decided not provide it and distance himself from them or they were pretending obeisance and once the investigation got underway they distanced themselves from Everett. It could be that like us he can’t believe that Boyle is as dumb and reflexively rude and offensive as he appears and Everett’s convinced that sooner or later Boyle’s going to reveal himself as the good, smart, and tough cop Everett needs him to be. We don’t know. McDonagh doesn’t show us. Everett doesn’t explain. So it could be that there is no good reason. Everett may be playing his own game of poker.
Cheadle makes Everett the straightest of straight arrows. He allows makes him a bit of a prig and a bit of a pris. And that raises all sorts of alarms.
No FBI agent worth his salt---and no character played by Don Cheadle---could be this fussy, this humorless, this naive. He couldn’t be so clueless as to wear that suit with that shirt to a meeting in a pub with a fellow law enforcement officer who’s already made his lack of respect for him clear. And with that handkerchief too? And when Boyle insults him, again, this time by assuming Everett grew up in “the projects,” Everett’s indignant reply, that he comes from a “very privileged background” sounds as put on as Boyle’s brogue. We’re left to wonder how good a good guy he’ll turn out to be when the inevitable showdown arrives, the same thing we’ve been wondering all along about Boyle.
We know how bad the bad guys are.
The trio of villains, a couple of Irish thugs, Liam O’Leery and Francis Sheehy, and a cooler-headed more thoughtful English thief named Clive Cornell, who insists he has a no heavy-lifting clause in his contract, dress, act, and talk as if they routinely re-watch Guy Ritchie movies, Pulp Fiction, and The Long Good Friday for tips and pointers on how to be bad guys and they laugh at each other’s jokes, applaud each other’s crimes, and admire their victims’ and intended victims’ courage and skills as if they are in fact watching themselves in a movie.
I suspect McDonagh of admitting to his own influences through them.
O’Leery (David Wilmot) is the craziest of the three but he has his pride and it’s important to him that his cohorts understand that he’s been clinically diagnosed as a sociopath not a psychopath, even if he can’t explain the difference himself. Cornell (Mark Strong) is the most self-aware, which makes him seem the smartest, but the way he’s aware of himself is as of an actor playing a role he’d rather not have been cast in. He can’t bring himself to put his whole heart into it, but as a professional he’s going to do it justice and see it through to the end, although he doesn’t seem to have thought out exactly what that means. Sheehy (Liam Cunningham) is the leader but mainly by virtue of being the only one of the three paying attention to the crimes they’re committing. O’Leery is too easily distracted by the moment. Cornell is too busy studying his part. Sheehy is left to keep their plans on track. But even he loses focus from time to time.
There’s a real possibility with these three that the crime won’t come off. Which isn’t good news because if they go off the rails it will be to do something worse.
They’re a trio of clowns, but what makes them funny is what makes them dangerous. They are more intelligent, more articulate, and more reflective than the garden variety gangster. But that just gives them the ability to fool themselves into thinking they are smarter than they are. Whenever they reach the limits of their actually quite limited intelligence they are as surprised and frustrated as dogs who’ve run up against an invisible fence. They get angry. And violent.
Boyle is on the other side of the invisible fence, standing grimly and inscrutably just beyond the limits of their intelligence.
There’s one more thing we don’t know about Boyle, how much of what we’re seeing of him, the grouchiness, the indifference, the itch to insult and provoke, and the moral and ethical failings, is him and not his way of dealing with his growing sorrow. Boyle is a sad man because his mother, the one person in the world we know he cares for, is dying.
Here’s a big difference between The Guard and Elmore Leonard’s novels. Most of Leonard’s novels feature a strong, active, intelligent, and beautiful female lead and love interest who can be played in the movies by the likes of Diane Lane, Jennifer Lopez, Ann Margaret, Rene Russo, and Pam Grier. The Guard has a strong, intelligent, and active to the degree a woman dying of cancer is able female lead, but she’s not beautiful (although you can see that she was and her eyes are still gorgeous) and she’s not the romantic interest, although she is part of a kind of love story.
Fionnula Flanagan plays Boyle’s mother, Eileen, and at first glance she seems too refined and frail a bird (even discounting her illness) to have given birth to this rough, burly, surly beast of a son. But it turns out they share the same sense of humor and the same tendency to keep the world at a safe distance by mocking and provoking and playing not dumb exactly but not quite all there. And we can see where he gets his poker face. Eileen keeps her cards close. She won’t let on even to her son what she’s feeling or thinking about what’s happening to her. Her fear, her sadness, and her worries about him and what will become of him without her, have to be inferred by Boyle himself as well as by us. Flanagan, though, allows Eileen one moment of complete honesty and openness, although it’s expressed through a lie.
The two have gone out to a pub, at her request, to listen to music not to drink or even talk, and at one point Eileen reaches out and gently grasps Boyle’s hand. This is one of the very few times we see them touch.
She tells him he’s been a good son and says “You never gave me a moment’s trouble.”
Boyle replies, “Aw, ma, you know that’s not true.”
She squeezes his hand a bit harder and smiles.
“Just for tonight,” she says, “Let’s pretend it is.”
Flanagan delivers the line with a mix of grace, affection, and wicked wit that gets a laugh at the same time it breaks hearts.
But that’s what comedy is, isn’t it? You laugh because what else are you going to do? Scream in horror or weep.
The Guard is a comedy like that.
New feature. The blonde’s one-sentence review: “What a delightful little film!”
Previous movie review from the Mannionville Daily Gazette: X-Men: First Class. The superhero as the only adult in the room.
The Guard, directed by John Michael McDonagh, starring Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, and Fionnula Flanagan, now making its way through movie theaters across the country. If you live in the vicinity of Mannionville, it’s playing at the Downing Film Center in Newburgh through Thursday.