MOVIE REVIEW - In Bruges
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writers: Martin McDonagh
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin
Stars: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Peter Dinklage, Eric Godon, Thekla Reuten
A woman standing in the crossfire suggests: “Why don’t you both put your guns down and go home?” And a gunman replies: “Don’t be stupid, this is the shootout!” And In Bruges, an impressive feature debut from writer/director Martin McDonagh, a playwright who won an Academy Award for his short film Six Shooter, thus acknowledges that it knows its genre, the characters that populate it, and the fates outlined for them, and has decided to operate on a different level, one of rhythm and nuance, an almost manic enjoyment of its characters’ commitment to their position within the drama.
Such richness of theme, and language, and timing, is a rare and encouraging thing from a film debut, and I can’t help but think that the 37-year-old McDonagh is representing a generation that came of age with the wisecracking gangsters of Goodfellas and Tarantino movies. They are not so much stock characters anymore as storytelling icons, and he’s not performing juvenile apery, but using them as standardized instruments to make beautiful music with. This is a ripened study of a fantasy world built by his forebears, and exploring it brings out his playful side.
The story concerns itself with two hitmen, the young and fidgety Ray (Colin Farrell) and the older Ken (Brendan Gleeson), who in spite of his profession is somehow gentle and paternal; pious, even. They have been sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out in the Belgian town of Bruges (pronounced “broozh”) after a botched job. They do not know why this twee tourist spot, full of the best-preserved medieval architecture in Europe, has been selected as their purgatory, but Ken is determined to make the best of it. He wants to sightsee and, per instructions, stay near to the phone at their hotel.
Ray has different ideas – he wants to find drink, drugs, and girls, in as much quantity as he can find. At first it’s pitiably comic, his absolute discomfort with the pace of Bruges, his unerring ability to find the deepest hole of trouble in the vicinity, and dive into it with a shovel. But there’s something deeper at work in the tortured boredom on his face; he is suffering because nothing in this town – not the svelte young drug dealer who sort of likes him (Clémence Poésy), not the film shoot featuring a dwarf actor with a sour temper (Peter Dinklage), not even the violent scrapes he lucks into wherever he goes – is drowning out the memory of why he had to come here.
So many movies of this type go no further than to establish – once a character’s gag is understood there’s nothing further to do but pull the trigger. But in spite of its gunplay this is a story that turns not on action, but on the development of a relationship between two people. Such light touches of sympathy in the screenplay, coaxed out by performance, are like a tower built of matchsticks, taking us to a single choice made by a character who is told to do one thing, but instead finds that he cannot, even though he knows what it will cost him to refuse. The movie will succeed or fail based on our belief in that choice, the rest is just machinery.
Propelled by that machinery, each of our three leads becomes a kind of elemental force. Ray’s is rudderless, hedonistic despair, and Farrell immediately becomes many times more interesting, and funny, as an actor when speaking in his natural Irish lilt. Gleeson, the burliest chameleon in the character actor ranks, plays Ken as firm patience, the calming influence. And Fiennes, with a gutter accent and a rat-like cast to his head, gives an unforgettable turn as Harry, whose jagged-toothed smiles barely cover a volcanic temper. He’s given to outbursts of absolute vulgarity and violence, and yet he still has a kind of private moral code; he will shoot people in some circumstances but not others, even if he really wants to, and he even demonstrates a twisted beneficence as he sorts out his criminal business.
In Bruges comes together like fine clockwork, each character acting determinedly according to their nature and damn the consequences. Even minor characters, like a hapless stick-up artist, and a proud hotel manager, are carried into the most appalling circumstances simply by asserting their own identity and principles. It is what makes McDonagh’s picture a comedy in its design, albeit a black and doom-laden one.
It is a complex tone he is weaving – quirk mixed with pathos, tragedy with the absurd. It sees genuine sadness in death, genuine power in thoughts of damnation, and yet shows a virtuoso flair for the ridiculous in its riffs and tangents. They eventually coalesce into a climax which works like a horrific cosmic punchline – the last judgment of the criminal profession descending as squarely and unforgivingly as the giant foot from the credits of Monty Python’s Flying Circus; absurd yet still poignant.
Somehow, McDonagh conveys all this utterly to his performers, and films them with a confidence that he is going to find the little bit of magic in them that he is seeking. This is a picture with more than a plot – it has personality.