Dir. John Michael McDonagh
(2011, R, 96 min)

What’s interesting about The Guard is that, for all its absurd humor, it never seems to go for a laugh. John Michael McDonagh, making his feature directing debut, plays the material almost entirely straight, and his characters seem unaware they’re in a comedy at all. We watch and listen for the usual comic rhythms but don’t get them. The actors’ delivery is unaffected and unironic, and if something they say is funny, they don’t know how or why it’s funny. And I think that makes it funnier.

Brendan Gleeson stars as Gerry Boyle, a jaded police sergeant in a quiet Irish community. He’s a plainspoken man, who talks matter-of-factly about experimenting with drugs and patronizing prostitutes, but he doesn’t mean to shock – it is what it is. In that manner he quickly offends FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), who has flown in from the US to bust a drug-trafficking ring; after viewing slides of four white suspects, Gerry raises his hand to say, with genuine bewilderment, “I thought only black lads were drug dealers.” But he doesn’t mean anything by it. “I’m Irish,” he explains. “Racism is part of my culture.”

The Guard gets away with such political incorrectness because it’s true to character, not forced on the screenplay for cheap laughs, and also because Gerry’s crudeness is offset by his unassuming good nature. That’s how he eventually wins over Wendell, who comes to realize Gerry isn’t hateful or even ignorant. He asks racist questions not because he’s trying to make a point of it, but because he’s curious and does not care to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate subjects.

As an offbeat crime film, The Guard exists on the filmic spectrum somewhere between Pulp Fiction and Hot Fuzz. It also bears more than a small resemblance to In Bruges by Martin McDonagh, the brother of this film’s director. In Bruges was also a good film, though more inconsistent, and both films are distinguished by excellent performances from Gleeson, who in this film is eccentric, heroic, and loutish, sometimes all at once. He doesn’t strain for laughs or sympathy. He doesn’t try to be liked, and that’s why we like him.