A well-meaning but cynical small-town Irish cop, a high-stakes drug-running thug, and a beat-up prostitute are sitting at a table in a strangely cheerful retro coffee shop in Ireland. The less-than-cheery subtext has to do with a blackmailing scheme, to keep said cop, fond of recreational hooker hiring, from pursuing an impending, major drug-smuggling case. What is the subject of more pressing conversation at the table? The underlying meaning of the classic Bobby Gentry hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” bubbling in the background. In this Pulp Fiction-y moment in the middle of the amazing crime-cum-satirical Irish film The Guard, we get a sense of the various comic, culturally knowing, and suspenseful forces at work in this utter gem of a film.
Clearly, writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s brilliant little film both buys into while also toying with its genre — the one about the big drug deal in a small town, and the convergence of local constabulary (the endearingly cynical yet privately warm Brendan Gleeson) and the big guns (FBI agent Don Cheadle, adding an American element). Not unlike Pulp Fiction, but with less splattered human tissue, the film happily indulges its undercurrent of cultural intelligence. In a grisly crime scene, the cops discuss film history, and when we first meet the cold-hearted-killer drug thugs, they are in the throes of a discussion about philosophers. From another sensory angle, the soundtrack prominently features the indie Tex-Mex of the band Calexico (heard at the Lobero recently), which somehow works beautifully, thousands of miles from its cultural home.
On a deeper level, the film contains atmospheric elements of that particular melancholy and proud islander stoicism — the individualistic, half-detached pluck of the Irish that we find in Joyce and other Irish cultural icons.
What makes The Guard one of those films which satisfies immediately and lingers in the mind is its very offbeat sense of self, its dryly stated, smartly paced mutant identity. We appreciate the oddities and hip asides, while making the usual assumptions, about the moral math equations of good outing over evil, and about the well-earned heroism of our protagonist. Actually, that happy ending possibility is left coyly ambiguous, but hinted at with the help of a John Denver song. It’s that kind of movie, and clearly one for the 2011 Top Ten list.