Scene4 Magazine: "The Help", "The Guard" reviewed by Miles David Moore October 2011

by Miles David Moore

Scene4 Magazine-reView

October 2011

I approach reviewing The Help, Tate Taylor's film of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel, with trepidation.  For one thing, The Help is one of the most beloved novels of the past decade, with Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter well on their way to becoming as enshrined in readers' hearts as Harry, Ron, and Hermione (or—more to the point—Atticus, Jem, and Scout).  For another, both the book and movie version of The Help have torn scabs off some long-festering wounds. Some reviewers and commentators, white and black, denounce the story as reinforcing insulting stereotypes about African-Americans; others, white and black, praise it as a moving tale of human strength and empowerment.

Writing about The Help (I have seen the movie but not read the book), I cannot help but feel self-conscious.  When it comes to America's original sin, I am in no position to cast stones.  I was eight years old in 1963, the year The Help takes place, in a region where attitudes about race relations weren't much different from those in Jackson, Miss., the setting of the book and movie(The main difference was that, where I lived, the nearest black people were thirty miles away.)  As a boy I remember feeling very confused about the contradictory things I heard on the issue of race; I also remember thinking some things, and saying some things, that make me cringe in retrospect. 

Patricia A. Turner, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California-Davis, wrote an excellent op-ed in a recent issue of The New York Times.  Turner's thesis was that novels such as The Help and even To Kill a Mockingbird perpetuate the fallacy that only villainous people were racist.  If that were true, she said, segregation would never have lasted.

"Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud," Turner wrote.  "The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man's Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy." 

Turner's column sparked a lively exchange of letters in the Times about The Help and about race relations in general.  Some writers defended the film, some did not.  One objected to the classification of people as "good" or "bad" in terms of race relations, on the grounds that it cut off further conversation.  Most agreed there were "good" people who held toxic views on race—not all of them in the South—but also that there were real-life Atticus Finches and Skeeter Phelans who believed Tom Robinson and Aibileen Clark should be able to sit next to them on the bus, or vote in an adjacent booth.

This preamble is my way of leading up to saying that, for all its virtues, The Help feels slightly fake to me. The film lacks the delicate magic of the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird; it feels cheaper and more obvious, its characters more lacking in nuance and believability. (I am one of the millions who loves Harper Lee's novel; Flannery O'Connor's sneering dismissal, that To Kill a Mockingbird was "essentially a children's book," stated the superficially obvious while missing the book's power entirely.)  The Help's most famous set piece—the revenge of Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) against the loathsome Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard)—is a case in point.  (If you don't know what it is, I won't reveal it here, though plenty of reviewers have.)  Roger Ebert opined that the incident seems to belong in another movie, and that's putting it mildly.  Even getting past the Ick Factor (which is tough to do), the sequence just doesn't make sense from the standpoint of either character or logistics.   Of course, others think it's the funniest sequence put on screen since Meg Ryan's faked orgasm in When Harry Met Sally, another set piece I have trouble with.  I will only add that if any character in the history of the cinema deserves the revenge dished out by Minny, it is Hilly Holbrook.


Yet though I have quibbles with The Help, I think it is worth seeing.  It has some deeply moving characters and plot developments, and the acting is beyond reproach.  It shouldn't surprise anyone that Viola Davis, as Aibileen, gives a performance that is an instant classic.   Aibileen is a singularly poignant, emblematic character—a nanny who loves and tenderly nurtures her white charges, knowing all the while their parents are bringing them up to hate her.  It is impossible to take your eyes off Davis; with her ability to project restrained yet potent emotion, she ensures Aibileen's predicament hits home. 

As Minny, meanwhile, Spencer steals every scene she's in with her wryly expressive face, eyes, and voice.  It is easy to see Best Actress and Supporting Actress Oscars in Davis and Spencer's futures, and also easy to applaud the idea.

There are plenty of other noteworthy performances in The Help, including Howard (though I would avoid any theater showing The Help if I were her); Sissy Spacek as Hilly's mother, slowly losing her memory but retaining her sense of dignity and propriety; Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, the kind-hearted backwoods belle striving desperately for acceptance; and the venerable Cicely Tyson, contributing some heart-stabbing moments as a loyal servant who meets a particularly shabby, undeserved fate.  As for Emma Stone as Skeeter, she's persuasive but her role is mostly reactive.  It's the other performers—especially Davis and Spencer—who will keep The Help alive in your memory.

If the white characters in The Help are open about their racism, Sgt. Gerry Boyle—the lead character in John Michael McDonagh's The Guard--is positively bald-faced.  Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), a member of the Galway Constabulary, attends a meeting called by his superiors and by visiting African-American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle).  Shown pictures of a trio of local drug smugglers, Boyle says, "I thought all drug smugglers were black—or Mexican."  Ordered to apologize to Everett for his racist remarks, Boyle is unrepentant.  "I'm Irish," he says.  "Racism is part of my culture."


McDonagh—the brother of playwright-filmmaker Martin McDonagh—has already let us know The Guard will be a walk on the wild side.  The opening scene shows a quartet of drunk, drugged-up teens joyriding on a narrow Irish road.  Boyle gives chase.  Presently he comes on the wrecked car and the teens lying dead in the road.  Boyle rifles through the pockets of one corpse, finds a tab of acid, and pops it in his mouth.  "It's a beautiful fuckin' day," he says.

John Houseman once asked the Irish actor Hilton Edwards what was the most typical aspect of the Irish character.  "Malice!" Edwards replied.  The tart, clear-eyed novels and screenplays of Roddy Doyle—The Commitments, The Snapper, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha—helped me to understand Edwards' reply; in Doyle's work, romantics and sentimentalists are always met with a good swift kick in the pants.  The McDonagh brothers go Doyle one better—or one worse, depending on your attitude.  The Guard—like Martin McDonagh's films In Bruges and Six Shooter, both of which also starred Gleeson—merrily stands Hollywood crime-film clichés on their head with a dry, nihilistic wit. If Roddy Doyle got drunk one night with Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, the result would be something very much like The Guard.

When Boyle's new partner McBride (Rory Keenan) disappears after his first day on the job, Boyle and Everett are forced to work together to solve the mystery and find the smugglers.  Gleeson and Cheadle, great actors both, have excellent rapport with each other.  Nevertheless, if you're expecting a buddy-cop movie along the lines of Lethal Weapon, forget it.  Boyle and Everett never learn to like each other; indeed, no one in The Guard likes anyone else, except Boyle and his mother (Fionnula Flanagan), who is in a hospice dying of cancer. (Boyle also shows great tenderness in questioning the wife of his missing partner, indicating that he can be chivalrous when he wants to be.)

Everett is stymied trying to ask questions of Gaelic-speaking natives who make Boyle look like a paragon of interracial understanding.  Boyle—when he isn't bedding hookers who oblige him by dressing like policewomen—meanwhile is asking the questions and doing the legwork that actually solves the crimes.  He knows the Connemara and its people; but, even more, he just doesn't give a damn. He knows the system is rigged beyond repair.  A couple of scenes show Boyle's superiors taking bribes from the smugglers, then deliberately trying to misdirect Everett.  In a Hollywood film, those corrupt cops would be shot dead at the end, or hauled off in handcuffs.  In The Guard, it gives away nothing to reveal that nothing happens to them.  The system goes on, the way it always has.  Everett, the straight arrow in a strange land, doesn't realize this. Boyle—who knows the rules but refuses to play by them—knows better, and knows the price of his refusal. Particularly at its end, The Guard has some interesting things to say about what makes a hero, and how legends are created.


There aren't enough words of praise in English (maybe in Gaelic?) to accurately describe the sheer, hilarious, charismatic excellence of Gleeson's performance.  Cheadle also is fine—he is incapable of being less—but I wish the character of Everett had been less bland as written.  Cheadle has given some crazy-wonderful performances himself, most notably in Devil in a Blue Dress as Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, a character who makes Gerry Boyle look like the Dalai Lama. ("If you didn't want him dead," Mouse says in a typical remark, "why did you leave him with me?")  While Boyle needed a straight man, I wish Everett had been written just a tiny bit less straight. 

Among the lesser roles, Flanagan matches Gleeson scene for scene, while as the smugglers Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot make amusingly pixilated stone killers.  (Just before one of their most heinous crimes, they're in a car together arguing about whether Nietzsche or Bertrand Russell was the greater philosopher.)  Along the way we get to meet other characters who push the boundaries of eccentricity. These include the young man who shows up at every crime scene, camera in hand—he's not a reporter or a policeman, he just likes to photograph crime scenes—and the local Irish Republican Army operative, who wears a white ten-gallon hat and tools around in an orange VW Beetle.

Featuring gorgeous photography of the West of Ireland by Larry Smith, as well as a so-incongruous-it's-perfect music score by Calexico, The Guard is a cheerfully bloody black comedy that cocks its head at the crime film genre and blows a loud, juicy raspberry. 

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©2011 Miles David Moore
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and
the Film Critic for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read his Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

October 2011

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