The Guard (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
12Jan/120

The Guard (2011)

 

Only one person in this picture comes out less than a despicable bastard.

This is a curious case.  The Guard is from John Michael McDonagh, the brother of the filmmaker and writer  Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), and is the clear showcase of a great talent.  It's scored beautifully, has a great sense of location in its sleepy Irish town, wonderful photography and a viscerally entertaining anti-hero performance from Brendan Gleeson.

Then why, exactly, can't I shake the feeling The Guard is (intentionally or not) arguing that it's ok for racism to continue?  Yes, this is a cast which is predominantly white and the central tension comes from the pairing of Sergeant Boyle (Gleeson), a cheerfully stuck in his ways but very intelligent guardsman, and Agent Everett (Don Cheadle), a FBI operative so perfect he would give Sidney Poitier a stiff challenge in terms of presentability.  They're stuck together investigating a series of murders along the countryside which leads to a number of very amusing sequences where Boyle's knowledge of cinema and fine culture combines with a very real sense of racism to bewilder Everett's own intelligence and charm.

This is a well which has been rung many times before (Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours), but I am failing to recall too many times where that tension was the source of genuine conflict if there's a hint of comedy involved (Die Hard With A Vengeance being a potentially easy counterpoint, but the film drops the racist tension fairly early on). Heck, the crime films I can recall which aren't comedies take it deadly seriously (Mississippi Burning and Q&A to name two).  But even in the comedies each character learns something in the end.  Even if it's a trite "we're all people" sort of message most of those films can walk away with at least saying they tried to evolve their characters.

The degree of respect in this shot flows in a very odd way.

This is something that The Guard can't really claim to do.  In spite of all the quippy dialogue (which is very amusing), it's peppered with insults to the British, Irish, Black Americans, Hispanics, and so many others in rapid measure.  Yes, some of this has to do with Boyle's genuine intelligence as a man who loves old films and quick thinking (on Tolstoy, "Never got into the Russians.  Take too long to get to the feckin' point.") as much as it does in accepting his racism ("I thought Blacks were only drug dealers?")

Normally we're treated to a slow evolution from the racist character but that doesn't happen here.  Not a hint of acceptance is brought about in his actions and, even worse, Everett just accepts it as something he can't change and eventually learns to roll with it.  This is bad enough, but since the film doesn't focus it's funny dialogue on the racist tirades of just one man, but the many who pepper the cast, it's disheartening to see not a single person get their comeuppance in the end for any of their narrow thoughts as opposed to their criminal actions.

Why do scenes linger just long enough to let characters deliver one more racial epithet?  Why is Boyle the hero?  Why does the fact that Everett cannot make headway into his investigation because he can't join in the exclusionary culture even have to be a plot point?  Yes, Boyle is given a sick mother to dote on and prove his humanity, but it didn't work in Crash (2005) for Matt Dillon and it just serves as a more obvious distraction from his actions here.

Here's an image that sums up some of the films problems tidily.

This, readers, is why The Guard is a curious case.  Pauline Kael, many moons ago, talked about the film Straw Dogs as a fascist work of art.  I agree, it's arguing for a kind of male control which I cannot stand and yet I was titillated and enthralled by the sex and violence all the same.  In The Guard I was in awe of the dialogue, quipping away with such black humor and strong scenarios that Gleeson's performance was just a happy extra.  But as the film progressed I felt more uneasy, yet still entertained by what I'm certain is a racist work of art.

If you still doubt me answer me this.  In the end, when it's time for the great shootout, why does Boyle call Everett?  Is it because he's learned to respect the American's talents, or because he literally has no one else to turn to?

The Guard is great art, just not art I agree with.

The Guard (2011)
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh.
Starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle.

Posted by Andrew

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