2007 // UK - USA // Martin McDonagh // February 28, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - The somewhat misleading trailer for In Bruges promises a crime comedy in the vein of Guy Ritchie, albeit with a bit more arbitrary wackiness. The film's promotion seems tailored to an audience that will be tempted by absurdist dialogue, hammy comedic performances, and cold-blooded violence—plus a sassy dwarf! What In Bruges actually delivers is an ambitious, relentlessly black comedy, cobbled together with doses of medieval moralizing and existential rumination for the arthouse crowd. It's a pleasurable ride, and a promising feature film debut from playwright Martin McDonagh. Unfortunately, the gravity of In Bruges—which might have been substantial—is diminished by the film's meandering exploration of too many thematic sidestreets, not to mention a plot that teeters on its improbabilities by the end.
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are hit men Ray and Ken, newly arrived in the terminally quaint village of Bruges ("The most well-preserved medieval city in Belgium," Ken cheerfully explains.) Through flashbacks, we discover that the pair has recently botched an assassination in Ireland, and have been ordered to hide out for two weeks in Bruges until they hear from their employer, Harry. Ken exhibits a genuine interest in absorbing the town's winsome historical and cultural sights by day, but by night he insists on waiting dutifully by their hotel phone for Harry's call. Ray, meanwhile, sulks like a spoiled child as Ken drags him from one cathedral and museum to the next. When he's not throwing despondent tantrums, he's insulting strangers and getting into fistfights with alarming regularity. The first thing to truly capture Ray's attention in Bruges is the set of a movie being filmed in town, where he is enthralled by the sight of a dwarf actor (Jordan Prentice) ("They're shooting midgets!") and by a local blonde beauty (Clémence Poésy) lurking on the set.
Were I to describe the plot's trajectory any further, it would spoil one of the pleasures of In Bruges. The twists and turns are routine for this sort of violent, black comedy, but they are rendered with just the right amount of naked, robust emotion. When the dramatic body blows connect, they feel earned.
The characters are what truly elevate In Bruges from a potentially slipshod entry in the growing Hit Man Comedy genre to a solid piece of filmmaking. McDonagh's script and the excellent performances offer one unexpected surprise after another. Colin Farrell not only demonstrates that he is comfortable with comedy, but he discovers a persona that fits him like a wetsuit: a curious blend of cocky, live-wire agitation and wilting vulnerability. Brendan Gleeson easily slips into Ken's shoes, his clipped, nearly unintelligible brogue offering that blend of paternal warmth and grizzly bear nobility that is his hallmark. McDonagh also ushers him into unfamiliar territory on occasion, and Gleeson delivers splendid moments of sincere awe, stammering deceit, and snappish brooding.
As the ruthless and tightly-wound Harry, Ralph Fiennes seizes on the opportunity to revel in a role one left turn removed from his usual fare. Harry is violently neurotic, uneasily sentimental, and utterly humorless, but, as they say, he has his principles. The secondary performances run from the charming to outright misfires, but Prentice, with his marvelously expressive face and slightly arrhythmic delivery, is a standout as the dwarf actor Jimmy. A foul-mouthed, racist drug addict, Jimmy nonetheless possesses as strange sort of patience and affability.
McDonagh's writing has a sweet and often devastating humanity to it, and he dribbles In Bruges with the sort of stinging morsels that carry a playwright's stamp. Consider an early scene where Ray attempts to strike up a conversation with Poésy's character, Chloe. Having glimpsed her speaking with Jimmy on the film set, Ray informs Chloe that dwarves have a higher suicide rate than other people, rambling on for far too long about this ghoulish factoid. The scene is played for squirming comic effect, and it also reveals something about Chloe through her reactions. However, there is a painful weight in this ludicrous exchange that only becomes apparent later, when we learn that Ray has profound suicidal thoughts himself.
The characters of In Bruges are dense with intriguing crannies, but unfortunately McDonagh doesn't know what to do with them at times, especially during the film's final twenty minutes. In Bruges wears its intentions on its sleeve. It yearns to be a profound yet hip meditation on the nature of sin, guilt, and penance. Ray and Ken discuss such weighty matters openly, spurred by the medieval history that suffuses their surroundings. Occasionally McDonagh's script strikes the right chord, but mostly he is flailing for meaning within a genre that may not be ideally suited to his ambitions. The components of In Bruges never gel the way that he seems to intend. McDonagh picks up themes, fiddles with them, then sets them down and walks away. The film might have managed more mileage if McDonagh had forsworn the explicit theological and philosophical cud-chewing and kept the focus on his characters. Or perhaps if he had dropped the black comedy entirely and created the pointed, spiritually grotesque drama that is lurking somewhere within In Bruges.
Sheer implausibility inflicts the second critical wound to In Bruges. One expects a certain amount of ridiculous contrivance in a violent black comedy, where unexpected relationships are revealed and characters pop up at the most convenient (or inconvenient) moments. However, the final act of In Bruges relies on stretches that are positively outlandish, if not downright insulting, and far removed from the dry serendipity that characterizes the bulk of the film. It's not reassuring when I envision any reasonably competent action film director handling several key sequences better than McDonagh manages.
In Bruges is a film of bold intentions, and in some vital respects it succeeds in creating something fresh and unexpected. McDonagh mounts it with rich, memorable characters, coaxes some wonderful performances from the cast, and lets the story unfold against a gorgeous backdrop. McDonagh's writing is generally so enjoyable that itâ€™s all the more objectionable when it fails to settle on a point worthy of such craftsmanship.
One warning for the sensitive: In Bruges is far more profane and violent than the film's marketing suggests. It boasts more "fucks" than any film since The Big Lebowski, and more blood than any film since Kill Bill Vol. 1. Leave the kids and your Mormon aunt at home.