Irish gangsters re-examine their career choices in smart, violent, perversely funny ‘In Bruges’
In one respect, Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is a marvelous travelogue for the medieval Old Town in the Belgian city of Bruges. The urge to join the migration of international tourists who will no doubt be flocking there in the wake of this film’s release may be irresistible. Just don’t forget to pack your bulletproof vest.
It’s not that Bruges is depicted in this film as any more violent or crime-ridden than any other city on the planet; indeed, it appears far more safe, civilized and tolerant than most. But the plot revolves around a pair of Irish hitmen sent to the city to chill out. They carry the potential for crime, violence, bloodshed, and mayhem around with them, the way Pig-Pen in the old Peanuts comic strip used to walk around under his own personal cloud of dirt.
There will, of course, be blood In Bruges—you know what they say about those who live by the sword—but that’s not all the movie is about. The best surprise about playwright McDonagh’s script is what a moving, tough-minded, cynical and effective morality play it turns out to be. At the same time, it’s a subversively funny black comedy of very bad manners, an increasingly absurdist riff on the gangster melodrama served up with some of the choicest deadpan dialogue you’ll hear at the movies all year.
After committing a contract murder in London that goes awry, novice young hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) and his mentor, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), are sent to lie low in Bruges until the heat dies down. This is fine with the older, nattier, more culturally inclined Ken, who happily wallows in the art, architecture, churches and canal rides of “the most well-preserved medieval town in the whole of Belgium.” But for clueless urban tough Ray, permanently hunched inside his pea coat, unclear on the concept of sightseeing, two weeks in Bruges over Christmas is a season in Hell. “I grew up in Dublin,” he says. “If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t, so it doesn’t.”
While they wait for their personal Godot—the crime boss they work for—to call them with further instructions, philosophical Ken soaks up more culture. Ray, meanwhile, stumbles upon a movie set shooting in the city, where he meets American actor, Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), a contentious dwarf, and attempts to make time with a pretty local girl, Chloe (Clémence Poésy), who sells drugs to film crews for a living.
But as the “fairy tale” setting of Bruges becomes more surreal, and the supporting cast more colorful (a self-righteous Canadian, a skinhead local tough, and the morbidly obese American tourists who have become de rigueur in European movies of late), the story’s deeper elements kick in. Surrounded by medieval altarpieces depicting Hell and Judgment Day (to say nothing of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch), Ray’s inner torment over an accidental tragedy that occurred during the commission of his crime begins boiling to the surface.
Ken, the consummate professional, is forced into a close encounter with his own dormant conscience when he’s given an assignment he doesn’t want and has to follow his own moral compass. And nothing gets any easier when their ruthless London boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives in Bruges to personally take charge of his wayward employees.
The plot and its many delicious twists from this point on is too startling, sad, and/or absurdly hilarious by turns to reveal. And no mere outline can give the reader a sense of the epic range of the story’s tragic dimension, or the rich adrenalin pizzazz of its comedy. Kudos are due not only to McDonagh’s perfectly pitched script, but to outstanding performances by all three leads. Farrell’s cocky, ingratiating sad sack is a propulsive delight. Gleeson and Fiennes are insanely entertaining, especially when debating the spurious ethics of the criminal code by which they live. No movie this brutal and bloody should be this much fun, but even if you hate yourself in the morning, chances are you’ll enjoy your stay In Bruges.
***1/2 (out of four)
With Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. A Focus Features release. Rated R. 110 minutes.