This past weekend I broke a semi-streak of movielessness and sat down to watch In Bruges.
The film begins with two Irish hitmen arriving in the trickily pronounced titular city (Broozh), the best preserved medieval town in Belgium. Ray (Colin Farrel) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are hiding out after a tragically botched hit back in London, and they are in the tiny city with orders to hide out and await instructions. Ken is a jovial, and he really seems to enjoy the quiet sightseeing, taking in the cobbled streets and ancient churches with a mellow calm that contrasts with Ray’s impatience to return to London. Ray has no time for canal tours, and is less than impressed with what Bruges has to offer:
“If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so it doesn’t. ”
Before long, the pair find themselves doing lines of coke with a racist dwarf named Jimmy, and Ray becomes romantically involved with a local drug dealer named Chloe (Clémence Poés). Complications ensue, mostly dealing with the ramifications of the hit that Ray messed up and coming in the person of one very pissed off Henry Waters (Ralph Fiennes), a crime boss with an admirably vulgar vocabulary and a desire to make Ray and Ken pay.
At the end of the first act (what follows probably isn’t a SPOILER, but its not revealed in the trailers so keep reading at your peril) the audience learns that Ray inadvertently kills a young boy when one of the bullets he fires goes through his intended target. It comes after we have been following Ray for a little while and our sympathies already lie with the character. Its hard to care about, much less like a character when you learn that he murdered a child, and it says alot about Ferrel’s performance that we still kind of root for Ray, even though we shouldn’t. It helps that he’s contrite to the point of being suicidal.
A talky movie about hitmen just kind of hanging out waiting for something to happen sounds like pure Tarantino, but in the execution In Bruges strikes a completely different tone from something like Pulp Fiction. It feels more like a morality play than some postmodern gangster film. The different story threads weave together into an ending that feels as though it were fated from the first shot. The walks a tight line between humor and the seriousness of its themes. At best, each of the characters is morally conflicted and rather than the deadpan ironic cool of Jules and Vincent, they each seem at least a little troubled by their profession.
The film was written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, and it shows a deft and steady hand. Its obvious that McDonagh’s background is in theatre, as most of the scenes involve Ray and Ken walking while talking. The setting helps, but McDonagh really captures the Boschian nightmare that Ray stumbles into. While the pair are in an art gallery, Ray becomes disturbed by a Bosch painting, with its depiction of hell and we know that he is pondering his own mortality and culpability come judgment day. Bruges itself becomes an apt visual metaphor for Ray’s personal hell.
But the action is still visually engrossing when the guns come out, there is a surreal tension to the violence. In this film, anyone is fair game and can meet there end at any moment. The screenplay leads you down several blind alleys, reversing momentum and taking back resolutions to events that just happened. There are twists and turns, but things never feel overly-plotted. The story follows its own natural momentum to its bloody conclusion.