Bad Sergeant, by David Bax
John Michael McDonagh’s directorial debut, The Guard, is an aggressively misanthropic film. It invents and then takes as many opportunities as it can to crack jokes at the expense of people suffering and dying. It also appears, from time to time, to be actively contemptuous of its own audience.
The story is about a man named Gerry Boyle, (played by the trusty Brendan Gleeson) a police sergeant in Galway, Ireland. Boyle has little regard for the rules and procedures of police work, even removing drugs from a dead body at a crime scene. He tosses most of the drugs in the ocean, under the assumption that the dead boy’s mother wouldn’t want to find out about them. Then he takes the rest of drugs himself, right then and there.
Boyle isn’t a hard partying type or a chronically misbehaving cop like in the Bad Lieutenant films. It’s just that he’s old, he’s been around a long time and he’s seen a lot of things. At this point, it takes a lot to stimulate his senses and he spends a lot of the movie chasing that stimulation or, more accurately, sitting around and taking it where he finds it. Therein lies the film’s main flaw. Whereas McDonagh’s approach is, as mentioned before, aggressive, Gleeson’s marvelous take on the character is beautifully passive. Whether in an idle moment, drinking a beer and playing an arcade game in the morning, or in a personal one, visiting his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan, a name whose appearance in any opening title sequence is a guarantee there’s at least one good scene in the movie), Boyle’s demeanor is essentially static. He takes things as they come, never judging, and if he can find an opportunity to make a joke, why not have some fun with it. Gleeson so singularly defines Gerry Boyle in the somewhat episodic first two thirds of The Guard as an immovable force, that when the time does come for him to change, the actor is able to convey volumes with only the slightest tweaks. This is one of the most complete and astounding performances of his already impressive career.
Gleeson not only helps the film through its occasional rough patches, he makes you think of them differently. Are these jolting and assaulting aesthetic choices needless directorial flairs? Or do they represent the world of the film trying to shake Boyle into action? One of McDonagh’s favorite tricks is a loud, sustained noise or musical cue turned way up in the mix. If this is the kind of thing that appeals to you (it does to me), then The Guard is a film worth seeing theatrically. McDonagh’s other trick, the one that I’m sure will give this film a cult following – if only a small one – is an unfailingly dry and witty script. Even when the jokes are straining too hard to shock, the way they’re written and spoken is endlessly entertaining. His words are both flinty and jaded and when they hit their mark, which is more often than not, they hit hard and dig in.
Just as the movie’s repetition of nastiness and insouciant badinage wears thin, the third act begins. It’s here where McDonagh, both as writer and director, merges with his cast (not only Gleeson and Flanagan but a realistically and endearingly uptight Don Cheadle) and with the score. Not only is that music very loud, it’s written and performed by the band Calexico, whose original compositions help push the film, as it goes along, further and further into the category of the modern Western. By the time the film reaches its climactic and wonderfully exciting shootout, you could be watching High Noon.
Though The Guard drags and even grates at times, it could very well be the most pure fun you’ll have in a theater this year.