It would in some ways be a disservice to relegate this week’s release “The Guard” to the status of a companion piece to “In Bruges” based upon the simple fact that writer/director John Martin McDonagh is the elder brother of Martin McDonagh, and both considerable talents on the basis of these pieces share some marked stylistic idiosyncrasies. However, because the artistic sensibilities of both filmmakers are so strongly correlative it will nonetheless be fruitful to examine the ways their work shares a distinctive creative vision, with particular prevalence in the way the brothers utilize politically incorrect and provocative humour. Firstly, however, I shall deal with the pressing business of the day: an appraisal of “The Guard” as both an original and immensely entertaining film in its own right, and as one of my personal favourite films of the year as we quickly descend upon the two-thirds over mark.
Whilst the similarities between John Michael and Martin McDonagh are as inherently present in their films as the simple fact of their fraternal relationship, “In Bruges” is very much a morality fable wrapped up in the generic trappings of the gangster film, whereas “The Guard” is simultaneously a buddy movie, a cop thriller, a character study and, most subtly and interestingly, a western. The latter generic nod is most evident in John Michael McDonagh’s exquisitely simple yet assured direction, which gives the piece genuine texture and depth. This detail is evident in the sharks swimming in a tank behind the three drug smugglers as they plot their new endeavour, in the ironic names of various Galway establishments, and in the Morriconian musical selections which variously underplay the drama, especially the climactic shoot-out on the pier. The Western flavour of the film is also most noticeable in this latter touch, and is similarly pushed to the foreground in the bleak landscape of the Irish countryside, the central relationship between the town sheriff and the American law enforcer, and in McDonagh’s highlighting of Brendan Gleeson’s eponymous, and richly complex, character as the archetypal good cop in a bad town. As such, die attention is paid to Gleeson’s application of his defining uniforms, and his ultimate cathartic act of vigilantism as he bears down upon the intruding bandits first with a gun in his hand, and later through hellish flames.
A quotation featured on the poster for the film describes the work as a cross between “Father Ted” and “Bad Lieutenant,” and indeed this would seem to be the best way of describing the dynamic of the interplay between Gleeson’s guard and the community he serves. Again in keeping with McDonagh’s nods to the classic western tradition, as rounded and multi-layered a creation as his protagonist is equally impressive and textured is the realisation of an eccentric and memorable cast of supporting characters, ranging from an ex-IRA weapons expert (symbolically complete with cowboy hat), Mark Strong’s drug trafficker who is in fact undergoing an existential crisis (unlike his similarly philosophically-aware cohorts), and a young boy who arrives complete with pink bike, shaggy dog, and an eerie awareness of what’s happening in the narcotics case. Gleeson is profoundly strong in the central role, and he deservedly governs the whole films with an ever-charming and whimsical mélange of warmth, aggression and droll one-liners. His character is one of the most off-setting and ambiguous antiheroes since Keitel’s infamously deranged law enforcer in Abel Ferrara’s disturbing opus, yet of course Gleeson also gets all the best laughs and is consistently hilarious in tone and delivery. He’s also intriguingly morally complex: a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, apparently racist, lazy, hooker-ordering mess who nonetheless provides weighty emotional support to his dying mother, to his partner’s widow, and ultimately to Don Cheadle’s FBI agent. Like Cheadle, the audience doesn’t know how best to feel about Gleeson and that’s the joy of the performance: it’s our own conclusion to draw. Personally, it would seem that Gleeson’s guard is a man who outwardly embraces the simplicity and antiquated customs and opinions of those around him, yet inwardly he uses this seeming ignorance to intelligent effect, rising above his associates and frequently using his opponents’ underestimation of him to his advantage.
Apart from the fine performances from every member of the cast, it’s the excellence of the screenplays that really sees “The Guard” and “In Bruges” set on a similar pedestal with regard to creative ambition and quality. Marked by complete tonal control, exquisitely distinctive and rhythmical patterns of speech and an acutely perceptive ear for dialect, the screenplays of the McDonagh brothers also share an intricate command of the accumulation of slight narrative details into grand climaxes. This pattern of the set-up followed by a long-withheld, and consequently more effective, punch line is evident on a small scale in the obese American tourist joke in “In Bruges.” Having suitably exploited the humour of cultural stereotyping, character-motivated abuse and brilliant slapstick, the seemingly concluded gag is revived in the midst of the intensely dramatic cathartic confrontation between Gleeson’s assassin and Ralph Fiennes’ demented avenging angel, when the two men are told that the bell-tower has been closed due to an American suffering a heart attack. In “The Guard,” John Michael McDonagh takes the build-up of incidental information leading to a grand reveal even further, making it in fact the gleefully ambiguous climax of the film. Gleeson’s charismatic but untrustworthy Garda policeman is possibly a former Olympic class swimmer, but has also joked about receiving a flesh wound in the arm in a gunfight: when he turns to the camera and utters his final lines “I’ll be seeing you” before he is apparently consumed in the flames of an exploding boat, it is up to us to decide which piece of information we attribute the greater weight to. For my money, the fact that Gleeson admits the inevitable repercussions other drug smugglers will visit upon him for his integrity and violently defiant stance against the trafficking provides more than ample reason for him to fabricate his demise.
The most fascinating scripted trope which unites Martin and John Michael McDonagh is their use of deliberately confrontational, politically incorrect and edgy, potentially deeply offensive humour, and their absolute victory in getting away with its usage. This is a matter of considerable personal fascination: in stand-up comedy, Al Murray can merrily make xenophobic comments in the guise of the Pub Landlord character, but the same material in the hands of Roy Chubby Brown would be deemed an offensive use of stereotyping, and the same can be glimpsed in the recent backlash when the presenters of “Top Gear” made a supposedly irresponsible and hurtful joke about a Mexican car. The reason a joke can be told one way and be revered and another way and reviled depends upon the use of a comic persona: the nature of the Pub Landlord character is such that the more politically incorrect jokes can be excused as an extension of the character performance, whilst when Roy Chubby Brown tells the joke not as a character but as himself we are much more likely to interpret a prejudiced joke as being the comedian’s actual opinion. We are aware that an educated man like Murray doesn’t believe what he says, and although Brown most likely is prejudiced it is easier for an audience to take what he says as representing his views because there is no character-context for the joke. Speculation about comedian’s actual opinions aside, the use of an ignorant character to pacify the reaction to potentially offensive humour has been used in cinema, to genius and exhaustive effect, by Sasha Baron Cohen in “Borat” and “Bruno,” and the McDonagh brothers are similarly expert at using this device. When a colorful rogues gallery of assassins, drug dealers and criminals swear profusely we accept this authorial usage of language, and in a remote Irish countryside community we expect a certain backwardness of thought and awareness to be present in the on-screen character ensemble: but at no point do we equate the opinions of the characters with that of the writers. In “The Guard,” the complexity and mystery of Gleeson’s character’s actual mental constitution contributes to the facilitation of the edgier jokes: we can take them because we are curious to discover whether Gleeson is making such wisecracks in genuine ignorance, or to manipulate reactions towards him, especially following the introduction of Don Cheadle’s superior enforcer to Gleeson’s turf and responsibilities.
“The Guard” is a wonderfully constructed and highly original piece of work, and advances the art of getting away with some seriously edgy comic material to a degree which pleases me greatly. Comedy should have no filter, and should not be restricted in the breadth of subjects it can address: as long as this comic ethos is handled with responsibility and intelligence, as it is here by John Michael McDonagh and previously by Martin McDonagh, the days of true innovation and daring humour are far from behind us. After all, the sweetest laughter is to be had in situations where you really shouldn’t be laughing at all.