Arthouse Audit: The Guard and The Whistleblower

The Guard

Did you like In Bruges? I loved In Bruges. Written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, In Bruges is my favorite kind of comedy—dark dark dark. The Guard is the directorial debut of screenwriter John Michael McDonagh, Martin’s brother. It has a lot in common in with In Bruges—clearly the brothers share similar taste. Though the tone is similar, The Guard is slower-paced than In Bruges, and less slick. The story centers on Sergeant Boyle (Brendan “Mad Eye Moody” Gleeson), a small-town police officer, or “Garda”, in Connemara, Ireland. Sergeant Boyle is a Columbo-type. His sense of humor is inappropriate, and he’s openly racist and consorts with hookers. But he also takes his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan, The Others and one of my all time favorite comedies, Waking Ned Devine) out for a night on the town.

While dealing with his near-dead mother, Boyle is confronted with a completely-dead gunshot victim. Killed in a manner that suggests a ritual of some sort, Boyle and his new officer, McBride (Rory Keenan, Reign of Fire), begin trying to find out what happened to their John Doe. Gleeson does a fantastic job of “hiding” Boyle’s intelligence. Initially he seems bumbling, ineffective, and even uncaring. But as Boyle starts to put together how the arrival of a drug trafficking ring in the west of Ireland relates to his rising body count, we see that he is, in fact, a very sharp cop. Thrown into the mix is FBI Special Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle, Iron Man 2, Hotel Rwanda and the Ocean movies), on assignment in Ireland to help track down the drug smuggling ring.

It’s a typical buddy-cop formula, but McDonagh enlivens it by keeping the relationship between Boyle and Everett genuinely prickly. When Boyle calls Everett for help, you’re really not sure if he’s going to come through. The relationship between the criminals and the Garda is actually less contentious than the one between law enforcement. The trio of drug smugglers, Sheehy (Liam Cunningham, The Whistleblower), Cornell (Mark Strong, Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass) and O’Leary (David Wilmot, The Tudors), are gentlemen-thugs not unlike Harry in In Bruges. Strong is especially funny as the morose and bitter Cornell, an Englishman who openly loathes Ireland, and who is openly loathed right back. Cunningham is stellar as the ring-leader Sheehy, combining humor and cold-blooded ruthlessness to great effect.

While I felt that The Guard isn’t as sharp as In Bruges, it is a very funny cop comedy in its own right and Gleeson is phenomenal as Boyle. Cheadle is as good as he always is, but this is Gleeson’s movie and he shines. McDonagh reveals himself to be an assured director and screenwriter, though he lacks his brother’s style. Witty, macabre and funny, The Guard is a well-paced, well-acted movie that should not be missed if you’re a fan of crime comedies.

The Whistleblower

A considerably less enjoyable viewing experience than The Guard, The Whistleblower is a super-depressing film about sex trafficking in the UN. Set in late-1990’s Bosnia, Rachel Weisz stars as Kathy Bolkovac, a cop from Nebraska who signs up for a stint as a UN peacekeeper for their large, tax-free paycheck. Kathy has lost custody of her daughter and must move to Georgia to remain close to her kid, but can’t get a transfer. So she goes the UN route, hoping to make a lot of cash in six months. Instead she finds she has a knack for accomplishing things in the post-war Balkans—she helps a Serbian police officer successfully close a domestic violence case, the first such win since the war ended. This brings Kathy to the notice of Madeleine Reese (Vanessa Redgrave), a humanitarian worker who gets Kathy promoted to head of the gender affairs office.

Kathy soon encounters Raya (newcomer Roxana Condurache) and Luba (German actress Paula Schramm) when she is called in to help the badly beaten Raya. She learns that the girls are prostitutes, sold into slavery by Raya’s uncle, whom they thought was going to help them get seasonal work in a hotel. Kathy is appropriately horrified and goes to work trying to help free the girls. She takes them to an NGO tasked with repatriating displaced persons after the war, particularly those victims of human rights abuses, but Kathy soon finds not everyone is keen as she is to help. Laura (Monica Bellucci, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee), the head of the NGO, is of questionable sympathy and is unwilling to break the rigid protocols of her office in order to aid Raya and Luba.

The Whistleblower delves into the worst of humanity—what happens when those in charge of helping decide to profit instead—and it will thoroughly crush your soul. The movie is inspired by actual events, so you can take no comfort from the fact that this pretty much happened. Though is an amoral pit of despair, The Whistleblower is a well-crafted film, steadily upping the stakes for Kathy and Raya and raising tension until the inevitable confrontation at the end. Redgrave is excellent as Madeleine and she introduces Kathy to Peter Ward (David Strathairn, Good Night and Good Luck), a UN internal affairs officer. Together Kathy and Peter try to save the girls but of course this is a Sisyphean task. The Whistleblower is brutal in its reality and don’t go in expecting to see some kind of positive result.

This is a hopelessly upsetting movie, you won’t feel good about anything when it’s over, but it’s important to address these kinds of issues. Weisz throws down as Kathy, doing a credible Midwestern accent and giving a strong performance that should be part of the Best Actress conversation. Overall, though, I did not think The Whistleblower was as effective as another of Weisz’s political movies, The Constant Gardner. First time feature director Larysa Kondracki (who co-wrote the script with Eilis Kirwan) does a credible job behind the camera, mixing lovely shots of the Bosnian countryside (in reality, Romania) along with images of war-torn Sarajevo. And the acting is very fine throughout—don’t blink or you’ll miss Benedict Cumberbatch in a largely pointless cameo—with Weisz leading the way. Do you want to be sad? Go see The Whistleblower.

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