UK / Belgium, 2008
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 24 July 2008
Source Universal Studios DVD
The story of a pair of Irish hitmen on the lam in the quaint Belgian town of the title, on paper In Bruges sounds like it could be just another post-Tarantino crime caper that insists too much on its own cleverness. The hitmen – young, nervy Ray and more seasoned Ken – are chatty and sympathetic, the characters that they encounter along the way are quirky and criminal, and there is (potentially irritating trope alert) a film within the film. But erstwhile playwright Martin McDonagh’s feature film debut as writer-director is far less precious – and more pensive – than one might expect. It takes its time to build a sense of dread that by the end is as thick as the fog that engulfs Bruges, and doesn’t entirely dissipate when the story ends.
There is more than a touch of travelogue here, despite Ray’s constant complaints of boredom, and the unfamiliar setting is among the film’s charms. But the greater impact is in how McDonagh catches us off-stride with the gravity of his themes. The pace is easygoing at first, and the banter of Ray and Ken is profanity-drenched but light and witty. When more is revealed about the job that went wrong in London before the lead characters’ exile in Belgium, the film doesn’t lose its sense of humor, but it does gain a philosophical side, and an almost palpable sense of regret. McDonagh treads the line between despair and hope with a grace similar to Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, (and echoes that film strongly in one key place). It’s as though he wants to tell a story of redemption, but isn’t sure that life can ever be that simple. Bruges becomes a purgatory for Ken and Ray, and because McDonagh doesn’t cheat and try to excuse them of their sins, we’re as conflicted as they are about where they should end up next.
Colin Farrell is impressive as Ray, who is rude and rash but not irredeemable. It may not be a surprise that the actor can pull off the junior hitman’s swagger, but Farrell also imbues Ray with a disarming fragility. As Ken, the other half of our existential double act, Brendan Gleeson is pitch-perfect, likable and paternal but not without an appropriate measure of menace.
And while this is undoubtedly Farrell and Gleeson’s film, the supporting performers get to sink their teeth into well-drawn characters as well. Ralph Fiennes’ Cockney gangster Harry gets to have it both ways: he’s the sneering villain of the piece, but his words and actions reveal a degree of humanity and a definite sense of honor. Even Thekla Reuten’s Marie – the pregnant innkeeper who we see decorating her Christmas tree – sparkles to life instead of devolving into a flat symbol.
The self-awareness of the script is well measured, restricted to a few smart bits of dialogue (“This is the shoot out,” one character observes at the film’s climax as an assurance that blood will be shed.), and while there is an increasing reliance on coincidence and suspended disbelief after the pace picks up and the film hurtles toward its conclusion, McDonagh has more than earned the privilege by then. The film has been called a pleasant surprise in more than one review, and in a sense that praise may be a bit too faint. In Bruges is in many ways a revelation, and for McDonagh, the dawning of a filmmaking career to watch.