Monday, August 15, 2011

The Guard: When Irish Eyes Aren’t Smiling

Sgt. Gerry Boyle, played by Brendan Gleeson in John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, is one of the most original characters I’ve met in a long time. Boyle is a walking, talking oxymoron: he’s laconic and obscenely garrulous, curmudgeonly and tender, lazy and vigorous, corrupt and idealistic. A heavy-set, jowly man, he gives the impression of being a not-so-bright hick, but he digs the jazz of Chet Baker and can talk knowledgeably about Dostoevsky. In short, he’s as complex as any real human being. Though the movie built around him may be low-budget and short on major plot twists, it left me with a smile on my face. And a lot to ponder.

In part The Guard falls into the familiar buddy-film subgenre of Hollywood cop movies. Because Boyle must reluctantly take on as his partner in crime-fighting an African-American FBI agent played by Don Cheadle, I found myself thinking back to the classic odd-couple relationship of Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. Released smack in the middle of the Civil Rights era, In the Heat of the Night focused far less on the solving of a crime than on a small Southern town learning to address its racial attitudes. When Sheriff Gillespie (Steiger) first encounters Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) late at night in the local train station, his first act is to arrest this well-dressed, well-heeled black man for robbery and murder. Tibbs, of course, turns out to be a Philadelphia detective, far smarter than anyone else in Sparta, Mississippi. By the end of the film, Tibbs has upended the stereotypes about him and his ilk. He has solved the murder, and elicited from Sheriff Gillespie, a grudging respect culminating in a solemn hand-shake before Tibbs leaves town.

The Guard plays on this situation, and to some extent reverses it. Boyle greets Cheadle’s Wendell Everett with expectations that come straight out of American crime movies, assuming that as a black man he grew up in “the projects” and flirted with a life of crime. (In fact, Everett turns out to be a straight-arrow who went from prep school to Yale.) When chided for his outrageously racist remarks, Boyle shrugs, “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture.” But in fact Agent Everett is just as guilty of jumping to conclusions: it takes him most of the movie to accept that this Irish rube knows his stuff.

Ultimately, the whole thrust of the film confirms the extent to which everyone relies on stereotypes. Englishmen, big-city Dubliners, Eastern European immigrants, gays, drug-dealers, cops: all are pigeon-holed by characters too locked into their own prejudices to see that reality defies the easy assumption. The same goes for the Irish view of Americans. For the citizens of Galway, American life is just like the movies, and the question of what Billy Joe McAlester threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge is a matter worthy of serious discussion. Such is the deadpan humor of a film in which we learn, via a casual aside, that the FBI’s Everett has named his young sons Stokely (as in Carmichael) and Huey (as in Newton).

The Irish lads behind this film hardly lack for an antic disposition. The Guard’s blend of serious action, offbeat humor, and philosophical heft were for me a delight. If everyone’s Galway accent had been a wee bit less opaque, it would have been a truly grand night at the movies.

WORTH READING: Stephen Farber’s piece in praise of “middlebrow” movies in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. Any thoughts on that? I remember the same attitude prevailing back in the Sixties. I didn’t see In the Heat of the Night for many years, because Pauline Kael and her ilk made it sound overly middlebrow. In that era, I considered myself an intellectual. That was before my Roger Corman years, needless to say.


  1. Ms. Gray! Wow! Yet another reason the great Mr. Corman has been so vitally needed - he got you to come back from the intellectual side of things so you could see movies like In the Heat of the Night! ;)

    I haven't seen The Guard, but I like both actors, so I'm sure I will. I love In the Heat of the Night - coincidentally shot near my hometown in Illinois. Yes, Sparta Mi was "played" by Sparta, Il! Unlike Mr. Corman and Intruder, Mr. Jewison and crew were a little too nervous about their project to shoot it where it was taking place!

    1. Actually, they did make a small trip across the Mason-Dixon line to photograph the characters against a backdrop of cotton fields, and Poitier was legitimately frightened, especially after some locals who were not particularly welcoming banged on his hotel room door in the middle of the night. Thanks for writing, Craig!