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Tuesday February 5, 2008 7:29 pm

Review: In Bruges

In Bruges screenshot

I love when I come into a film having preconceptions, and they are totally obliterated and replaced with the feeling that I’ve found something unique, something I was unable to foresee. That may seem a bit dramatic—In Bruges is, after all, a fairly linear story. But writer/director Martin McDonagh injects a dark, reflective tone into what could’ve easily been a talk-‘em-up, shoot-‘em-up Guy Ritchie film; those who’ve seen the trailer know what I mean. And while Ritchie films are appealing in their own right, In Bruges deviates significantly, exhibiting characters who somehow transcend their quick wit and hardened exteriors to reveal—much like the city itself—great history and depth.

Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are two hitmen sent to the Belgian city of Bruges after a botched job in London. They’ve been told by their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to do some sight-seeing, lie low and await further instruction. But the city, full of ancient architecture and historical landmarks, can’t satiate Ray and his need for distraction. The job-gone-wrong had been Ray’s first assignment as hitman, but the unspeakable mess left in London is but a slight snag for long-timer Ken, numb to the violence of his profession.

Check out the FilmCrunch interview with Martin McDonagh and Colin Farrell.

In Bruges opens as the men are first arriving in the city; only later do we discover the reason behind their little vacation. Ray is unimpressed by what he sees and whines unabashedly about how people in Bruges are “retarded,” and the history that surrounds them is boring. Ray almost immediately shows himself to be the more immature of the two, acting much like a spoiled child determined to ruin the family vacation. Ken, on the other hand, looks at the trip as an opportunity to relax for a couple of weeks while things cool off. He wants to see the city’s “retarded” history and culture, explore the old buildings and forget London for a while. The bond between the two men begins as a business relationship, but gradually it deepens, becoming an almost father-son dynamic that grows more apparent as the story progresses. Ray’s naiveté and post-traumatic struggle clearly remind Ken of his own younger days, when he still had the chance to walk away and forget the life to which a hitman has committed himself. 

The men are supposed to be staying out of trouble and waiting for Harry to call, but Ray can’t sit still and convinces Ken to hit the pub, sightsee, or just get out of their cramped hotel room. It is here the men discover Bruges in both its illuminated magnificence and its dark, dreary sordidness.

When Ray saunters out one night for a date with a local Belgian girl, Ken finally corresponds with Harry, the boss. Harry is insistent that Ken regale him with stories of all the fun they are having, particularly that of a shaken Ray. Ken dishonestly assures him that Ray was skeptical at first but has since come to love the Flemish city. “He says, ‘it’s like a dream, but my eyes are open,’” Ken cleverly fabricates. Harry is pleased, but proceeds to tell Ken of the ulterior reason behind their trip, something abhorrent and loathsome and problematic, even for a hitman. Suddenly, the simple city becomes a whole lot more complicated.

What makes In Bruges so unique isn’t its witty, often hilarious dialogue; its impeccable comedic timing; or its stellar performances and picturesque scenery. Those qualities only make it good. Director Martin McDonagh has crafted a piece that so effectively touches the extremes of comedy and tragedy, Shakespeare himself would likely stand up and applaud. A long-time playwright and writer/director of the 2006 Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter, McDonagh has clearly learned how to recreate the fascinating ways in which people communicate under tense and traumatic circumstances—with sporadic emotion and a heaping helping of laughter (and in this case, plenty of drinking and drug use) to cope with everything in between. His sensibilities ensure that this, his first full-length feature film, doesn’t fall into the mold of Guy Ritchie (funny and action-packed but with little pathos) or David Mamet (comedic and emotional but sometimes contrived), though both are masters of their craft. McDonagh’s natural writing style and perfectly balanced emotional awareness match the best of his contemporaries—in some cases outshining them.

The film stays thrilling with a healthy measure of violence, and McDonagh certainly doesn’t skimp on the blood. But the bloodshed isn’t blithely passed over like other films’ gratuitous scenes. There are the occasional moments of slapstick violence, yes, but the film is careful to show the difference when the stakes are high. During the intense shoot outs, we have your garden variety chasing and shouting, but when someone is injured, McDonagh keeps you in the moment, reminding you of the importance of the life in question and the gravity of its possible loss—again, a great divergence in this genre.

The three main characters—Ray, Ken and Harry—are played with appropriate subtlety or exuberance, depending on what I suppose is each actor’s artistic choice. Ray’s nervous energy and boyishness are perfect for Farrell, in what is easily one of his best performances. The ever-impressive Brendan Gleeson brilliantly juggles warmth and stoicism as the seasoned hitman, Ken. And Ralph Fiennes, reminding me of a more affable Ben Kingsley from Sexy Beast, draws laughs and gasps from the audience as the boss, Harry. Even the lesser-known actors—Jordan Prentice as Jimmy, the fiery American dwarf, and Clémence Poésy as Chloë, Ray’s love interest—add surprising depth and perspective to an already complex story. Bruges itself even becomes a character, transforming from a dream to a nightmare as the tone of the film changes.

In Bruges is one of those films that is highly enjoyable in the theater, but will also undoubtedly end up occupying space in your DVD collection—if not for its unique combination of depth and hilarity, then simply because Martin McDonagh has now proved that he can tackle any medium and will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of his writer/director contemporaries.





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