The recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York unveiled two brilliant new Irish films (both about Irish cops, as it happens). Writer and director John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson, will be released in July. And in a nice bit of symmetry, Gleeson also plays a guard in Noreen, an atmospheric short film written and directed by his Harry Potter starring son Domhnall. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to the two talented directors currently making waves in Irish film.
Brendan Gleeson is the most accomplished Irish actor of his generation. Let’s just get out of the way.
If you still have any lingering doubts about it they’ll be dispelled when you catch his lovely, understated performance as a tough on the surface Garda inspector (Irish police officer) in writer and director John Michael McDonagh’s entertaining new Irish film The Guard.
McDonagh (who’s the older, wiser brother of playwright Martin McDonagh) obviously agrees that Gleeson is something special, because he’s cast him in every one of his projects past (The Guard) and future (Calvary, where Gleeson will play a priest grappling with the contempt of his local Irish community).
The Guard received an ovation at the Tribeca Festival because McDonagh has managed to craft one of the smartest scripts in years. The film tells the story of Galway-based smalltime cop Gerry Boyle, the little policeman with the biggest attitude in the west.
On the surface Boyle’s a crass, thoughtless, tactless and frequently unbelievably insulting oaf -- ah, but underneath he may well be the smartest guy ever to wear the uniform.
When an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) arrives in town tracking a billion dollar drugs shipment, an unlikely friendship forms between the straight arrow U.S. agent and the loose cannon Irish cop.
But McDonagh explodes this clichéd storyline with some genuinely dark and unsettling developments (it’s an anarchic impulse that he shares with his playwright brother).
If Ireland could produce a punk rock version of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, this is probably the closest thing to seeing what it would look like. By turns heartwarming and surprisingly nasty, The Guard is a hilarious and deeply unsettling film that has given Gleeson his most ambitious role in years.
So was McDonagh satisfied with the cheering from the audience when the film premiered at Tribeca?
“It was good,” he tells the Irish Voice, with typical understatement.
“Different audiences laugh at different jokes. The only thing I was really worried about in New York was how the anti-PC humor in the film would play. At Sundance it’s a Middle America audience, but they seemed to go along with it too.
“I saw a lot of dropped jaws. The presence of Don Cheadle helps with that kind of comedy (Cheadle is the target of Gleeson’s racist barbs in the film). If he wasn’t there there’d be a different edge to it.”
Like his brother Martin, McDonagh was raised in London and speaks with an inner city accent, but he also knows the Irish-speaking Connemara district his parents were raised in like the back of his hand.
In fact, few films in recent years have captured rural Ireland the way it actually is like The Guard.
McDonagh shows it in all its rainy, grey, bog covered brilliance, a landscape that’s a million miles from the kind of epic Lord of the Rings grandeur that’s usually seen in the films made for tourists.
When McDonagh introduced The Guard during the royal wedding week he joked that the horses in Buckingham Palace have more sense than the people whose golden carriages they’re pulling. This statement drew shocked gasps from the American audience, which McDonagh enjoyed.
“They assume everyone in Britain loves the royal family,” says McDonagh with a big grin. “The concept that there could be an anti-monarchist political movement is just kind of anathema to them.”
McDonagh has filled The Guard with good jokes.
“I sometimes get criticisms that I write films with too many witty characters. But I don’t believe that working class people can never say something intelligent, and also I do it to keep it interesting as I’m writing it. I like throwing in all those references to the Russian novelists,” he says.
Villains in thrillers aren’t usually bored, but McDonagh enjoys giving audiences the opposite of what they expect.
“We never see a villain who doesn’t get along with the people he’s with, who doesn’t want to be there anymore. It’s just his job and he has to follow it through. In a way my villain is sort of relieved to be killed, because it puts him out of his boredom,” he offers.
The big anti-PC gags get big laughs, too. Speaking about the black FBI agent played by Cheadle, Boyle says, “He probably hasn’t had this much fun since he killed all those kids at Waco.”