I didn’t think it was possible this late in the game for someone to inject fresh blood into the weird little subgenre that is Dark Comedies About Hitmen In Quirky Locales, but writer-director Martin McDonagh does a good job with In Bruges, his first feature film. It’s not that there are no good ideas left; it’s just that the entire psychic ground feels plowed under by Tarantino, Ritchie, and a dozen other followers who think everything will be all right if they can just throw in some guns and non sequiturs and odd townsfolk and hope it all turns out for the best. However, though McDonagh’s film is enjoyable, interesting, and extremely dark, it works primarily because of the firm grasp on character and action he’s built up through a lifetime of writing award-winning and pretty unsettling plays like The Pillowman. In Bruges has all the action and flow of a dynamic film, but the pain, drama, humor, and sharp characterizations could only come from someone who’s spent a lifetime writing stories that rely solely on dialogue for emotional content. The whole thing is grim, weird, witty, and not quite like anything you’d expect it to be.
The film opens with Ray (Colin Farrell) quietly narrating the fate he and his partner, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), have been sentenced to: They’ve been packed off to Bruges, Belgium, to lay low after Ray assassinated a priest for his boss, whose criminal connections are never really made clear. Ken is amiable enough and winds up liking Bruges from the moment they arrive, but Ray hates the backward nature of the tourist town, which seems to consist of nothing but American tourists and old castles. They’re supposed to sightsee and lay low while waiting for their boss to call them, but Ray can’t stand to sit still for more than a few minutes, and complains at every historical landmark Ken drags him to see. Farrell and Gleeson are perfectly at ease with each other, bickering like an old married couple one minute and content to hang out together the next. They’re two halves of the same person, and not just because one of them is taken by the beauty of Bruges and the other can’t wait to get away: They also inhabit different ends of the spectrum when it comes to their job. Ray’s murder of the priest was his first professional kill, but Ken’s been doing it for years; Ray is selfish and generally unhappy unless his own interests are being served, but Ken talks of trying to “live a good life”; Ray is an inexperienced killer but more prone to violence, while Ken is a veteran who stays out of trouble. McDonagh creates two solidly grounded characters in a matter of minutes, thanks to the honesty and believability of their interactions, and Farrell and Gleeson inhabit their roles with calm commitment. Gleeson has been blending into the background for years, turning in consistently solid character work every time out, but Farrell does a wonderful job simply because he seems more at home with this character than he has been since Roland Bozz in Tigerland. Ray is a neurotic, explosive mess, never sure of himself and dealing with some pretty huge collateral guilt from his assignment, but Farrell sinks into him and creates a nuanced, complex man. He’s likeable without being heroic, and empathetic without being pitiable. Ray and Ken are partners, but it’s Ray’s development and Farrell’s performance that carries the film.
Out for a stroll one night, Ray and Ken come across a movie being filmed in the streets, which features a dwarf who captures Ray’s curious attention. This is where Ray meets Chloe (Clemence Poesy), a townie who makes money by occasionally selling drugs to film crews and boosting stuff from tourists. He improbably scores a date by rattling off facts about the disproportionately high suicide rate among dwarves, but while he’s out with her, Ken finally gets the call from their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), whose got another job for them that Ken balks at doing. While Ken weighs the merits of the job, Ray winds up getting closer to Chloe, who’s also got a thug of a boyfriend, and Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), the dwarf from the film who espouses weirdly racist theories when he gets high. McDonagh piles on just enough unique characters to give the film its own shape, but he doesn’t overdo it, though admittedly the racist dwarf toes the line between legitimate humor and just being weird for the hell of it.
The rest of the film unfolds in Bruges, as McDonagh charts Ken’s despondency, Ray’s growing attachment to Chloe, and the inevitable trouble they’re both headed for when Harry comes to town to express his displeasure with their loosened work ethic. Fiennes is fantastic, too, and somehow pleasant to watch even as he’s murdering people. McDonagh’s humor lands just safe of perverse or offensive, and he saves his best lines for Harry. At one point, Harry swings by his local arms dealer to buy a gun, and upon being offered an Uzi, scoffs and says, “I’m not from South Central Los fucking Angeles. I don’t want to kill ten black boys in a drive-by. I want a normal gun for a normal person.”
But more than the twisted humor, McDonagh’s film is fantastic at actually bringing a human dimension to what is essentially a trio of occasionally vicious and not very bright murderers. Harry’s a foul-mouthed killer, yes, but he’s also a family man who loves his wife, and apologizes when he loses his temper and shouts at her. Ken is barely able to reconcile the warring halves of himself, torn between killing for a living and wanting to be a normal man. And Ray, anchored by Farrell’s performance, is downright moving on occasion when he struggles to deal with the grief he feels over one of his murders, and when he becomes somewhat suicidal, McDonagh keeps him from being a cliché by giving him depth and by admitting to the generally depressing nature of the human condition at large. “Everybody’s suicidal, but we don’t keep going on about it,” Harry says, and that sense of soldiering on is a telling glimpse into a fraction of McDonagh’s worldview, or at least the tone he brings to his collective created universes. The body count in In Bruges is high, but McDonagh’s ultimate goal isn’t for his characters to kill someone, but to wonder what that will do to their own lives, and whether they will have the strength to keep going.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Belgian Waffling
Film | February 8, 2008 | Comments ()