erik lundegaard

The Guard
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The Guard (2011)

WARNIN’: SPYLERS

FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) says the key line about the protagonist in “The Guard,” Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), a third of the way through the film. He says, “You know, I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart.”

We’ve been wondering the same thing. Veering toward the latter.

Boyle is a cop, or garda, in a small town in Connemara in the west of Ireland. The movie opens with kids drinking and driving and taking drugs and speeding. Then they shoot past a police car parked by the side of the road. Then there’s a crash. Only then does the police officer (Boyle) react. He sighs and rolls his eyes.

Boyle is a man who doesn’t want to do much because there’s no point in it; the world is the way the world is.

But he’s given a new partner, Aidan McBride (Rory Keenan), fresh out of Dublin and gung ho. The two come across a dead body, an actual dead body, under creepy circumstances: bullet in the forehead, Bible verses stuffed in his mouth, potted flower in his lap, the number 5½ on the wall. A serial killer? But why the number 5½? “There was a movie ‘8½,’” McBride states. “Fellini.” Pause. “There was a movie ‘Se7en,’” he adds.

“You gonna list every fookin’ movie you can think of with a number in it?” Boyle asks.

At the police station we see Boyle taking notes. Nope, he’s actually drawing nonsensically. When a straight-arrow FBI agent, Everett, arrives and speaks to the local police force about an impending shipment of cocaine with a street value of $500 million, Doyle raises his hand and asks which street. Because doesn’t the value differ from street to street? (That’s the motherfucking smart part.) He adds that he thought all drug dealers were black lads. Or Mexicans. (That’s the motherfucking dumb part.) Accused of racism, he pleads multiculturalism: “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture.” He also knows something they don’t: One of the four men they’re looking for is dead; the guy with the bullet in his forehead and the number 5½ on the wall.

“The Guard,” written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, is like its protagonist: dry and humorous. The three remaining drug dealers and killers, played by Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong, have conversations like British variations of Tarantino’s criminals: they quote Nietzsche, argue whether “sociopath” or “psychopath” is worse, and make criminality seem like your own job by lamenting: “I’m just sick and tired of the people you have to deal with in this industry.” Whenever any local hears that Boyle is working with a man from the FBI, they ask, “Behavioral Science Unit?” Boyle takes his mother (Fionnula Flanagan), dying of cancer, to a nightclub so she can hear live music again, and when she laments missing out on life, he tells her, with his usual straightforwardness, “Sure you missed out, generally. You’re not fookin’ alone, dear.” The psychopath (Wilmot), dying, has the same lament.

But there’s silliness here as well. When Boyle refuses to work on his day off—instead indulging in a three-way with two prostitutes who are as pretty as actresses, because, of course, they are—Everett, rather than getting assistance from another cop, drives around the county by himself trying to extract information from the tight-lipped Irish, who don’t even speak English. That’s really motherfucking dumb. Later, he buys into disinformation about the drug dealers, dismisses a call from Boyle with the comment, “Idiot,” but still shows up, a la Han Solo and countless action movies, to be Boyle’s second for the gun-battle finale. That’s really motherfucking conventional.

The film is a little too in love with Boyle, too. It makes him always right and the straight-laced always wrong. It doesn't linger enough on the possibility that he's really motherfucking dumb.

And could a brother get some subtitles? It’s in English, sure, but I only understood about two-thirds of it. The other third, thickly Irish, was lost on my thick American ears.

The question many viewers will have at the end of the movie, I assume—a question that might even have brought you to here via the search engine of your choice—is whether Boyle survives the fire aboard the cocaine-laden ship. Does Boyle live? you ask. Of course he does. He’s forced into the final gun battle because the bad guys couldn’t let him be. But he also knows, as the ostensible gang leader, Francis Sheehy (Cunningham) tells him, “There are men behind the men.” So taking care of these guys won’t finish the problem. More will come at him. Unless they think he’s dead. That’s the conclusion Everett comes to at the end anyway. He replays the key line about Boyle, quoted at the beginning of this review, holds on Boyle’s smiling face, and then the soundtrack gives us the old John Denver song, “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.” Which is where Boyle went. Which is why Everett smiles.

Boyle, in case we didn’t know it by now, is really motherfookin’ smart.

—August 28, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard