*The Guard (R)
Kimball's Peak Three
There's never been any doubt that Brendan Gleeson is a talented actor. He burst onto the scene 13 years ago in The General, and has been a symbol-of-quality supporting player ever since.
In John Michael McDonagh's new film The Guard, Gleeson finally gets another leading role, and all of us are better for it.
The movie is well-written and funny, but Gleeson elevates it above a simple crime comedy, delivering a performance that's nuanced and hysterically funny, one that's difficult to decipher, and will keep you guessing even after the lights come back up.
Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, an Irish policeman with a little corruption problem in that he takes drugs, drinks on the job, has a lot of attitude, and cavorts with hookers. Aside from that, he's actually quite a capable cop, just one who's looked down on by everyone else on the force. It's actually FBI man Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) who thinks the worst of him, after he finds himself working with Boyle following the disappearance of a local deputy amid the search for three international drug traffickers.
The drug guys are, in fact, the reason said deputy has gone missing. Played by Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong, these guys have bribed almost every other cop in the country — everyone, that is, except Boyle (and, of course, Everett) — to look the other way while they move their product.
That's one of the smartest parts of the film. Boyle's corruption is essentially victimless, while everyone who looks down on him is actually taking advantage of their position to enrich themselves. Boyle may be hedonistic, but he has a sense of ethics and is a very good person to the people around him who deserve it. His conflict here is in deciding to stand up and fight for what's right — something he's technically been doing the entire time, via his odd, idiosyncratic methodology.
You might think The Guard has a great deal in common with In Bruges, the Irish hitman film with great dialogue and quirky characters, which also starred Gleeson, along with Colin Farrell. You'd be right, as McDonagh, who also wrote the screenplay to The Guard, is the brother of Martin McDonagh, director of In Bruges. The films have a similar feel, but most importantly, both films have Gleeson, who delivers one of the year's best performances. You rarely know if and when he's being serious, if he's crazy or sane, if he's playing all the people around him, or letting them take advantage of him.
As Cheadle's FBI man says shortly after they meet, "I don't know if you're really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart." That, in fact, is the key to the entire film. Boyle is the Irish equivalent of Orr, Yossarian's roommate in Catch-22, who is the key to that fine American novel even though you likely don't remember his presence at all.
That's what's so important to both McDonagh's screenplay and Gleeson's performance: Even when the movie ends in a hail of violence, you don't know whether you're being played by the cop in question, a bad man in the eyes of society, but who is good at the end of the day. And that is exactly how they want it.