Perhaps no movie this year generates more concussive laughter from audiences than The Guard. This low-budget, highbrow Irish comedy stars redheaded character actor Brendan Gleeson as a small-town cop in County Galway in the tranquil West of Ireland. Smart, cultured, lazy, and mischievous to the point of maliciousness, Sergeant Gerry Boyle of the Garda is bored, especially by his chief duty: pulling over reckless youngfellas. Because almost every road in Connacht is lined with thick rock walls piled up by farmers looking for some place to stow the stones that litter their fields, the West of Ireland isn’t an ideal setting for drunk driving. But that doesn’t diminish its popularity.
The Guard opens with a car full of sozzled louts roaring past Sgt. Boyle’s speed trap. When his police cruiser unexpectedly fails to race after them, the camera zooms in on Gleeson’s deadpan face, with his eyebrows raised an eighth of an inch at his fellow man’s stupidity. When the inevitable crash clangs on the soundtrack, his eyebrows go up a full inch. But that’s all that happens. Getting out of his car to see if there are any survivors is something he’ll get around to on his own schedule.
Modeled after the 1960s-70s movies in which Walter Matthau elevated middle-aged cynicism to an art form, The Guard provides the 56-year-old Gleeson with a grand opportunity at what the Irish do best: being abrasive and warm simultaneously.
The Guard is written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose younger, more successful brother Martin McDonagh (playwright of The Beauty Queen of Leenane) directed Gleeson in the 2008 gangster film In Bruges.
Martin got an executive-producer credit and a $10,000 check from his big brother for passing the screenplay on to Gleeson, but that was the extent of fraternal teamwork. We’re now familiar with brother acts such as the Coens, Wachowskis, and Farrellys, but the McDonaghs’ mutual standoffishness was more the Golden Age norm. For example, Herman J. Mankiewicz cowrote Citizen Kane and his younger brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote All About Eve, but they rarely worked together.
The elder McDonagh has a slightly mechanical gimmick to inspire his screenwriting: He takes all the clichés in American detective dramas and has his characters do the exact opposite. Thus, he’s made a message movie about prejudice and xenophobia: They add a bit of fun to life! In The Guard, the rural Irish resent the big-city Dubliners, all the Irish resent the English, and everybody in the British Isles resents the cultural dominance of American crime shows and movies.