In Bruges is a riveting, fascinating crime thriller that begins as a buddy/travel comedy and builds to a theological guilt drama. These elements would hardly seem like a fit in tone and style in most American movies but the Brits and the Irish have a way of placing their brand of crime thrillers like Sexy Beast or Intermission right in that sweet spot where one does not know whether to laugh, recoil in shock, or maybe even cry.
This time, it is Irish playwright Martin McDonagh who effortlessly meshes sardonic wit and shocking, tragic violence in this story of two hitmen who are at odds on how to perform their latest job and do some sightseeing in this small town in Belgium called Bruges.
The two hitmen are sent there for two weeks to lay low for a while after the last hit went horribly wrong. The younger one is Ray (Colin Farrell), who is a bit of a hothead and cannot get back to his hometown, Dublin. This at times exasperates the older, gentler one, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) who is more into seeing the artistry and architecture of this town he reads in his travel guide to be the “best-preserved medieval city in Belgium.” We have seen this kind of pairing before, of course, but the elastic chemistry between Farrell and Gleeson make the film so fresh and so witty with the kind of humor that is based on a clash of character quirks and intent observation of human traits.
This much you can gather if you have seen the hipster trailer that fortunately does not give away the film’s deeper core and this is a movie that is best enjoyed watching it cold and letting the story unfold rather than trying to outguess it. No doubt there will be some who may not be as pleased at the darker turns the film ultimately takes but it is one of the story’s pleasures that the twists and the inventive albeit morbid humor base themselves more on character than on plot. So, though I will tiptoe around the crucial developments, stop reading here if you wish to walk into this movie without knowing any more about it.
The first third of the film is filled with that hilarious interplay between the two hitmen as well as some moments of truly irreverent humor. But there is a more serious current that surfaces once we find out that they are actually in hiding in Bruges after Ray's last hit, killing a Catholic priest (Ciaran Hinds, in a brief, uncredited role) in Dublin, went horribly wrong and left him with terribly wounding guilt. While they wait for a phone call from an apparent crime lord, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), on what to do next, the duo meet some other fanciful characters on one night out.
Resenting being stuck in this small town, Ray lights up when he runs into a beautiful blonde Belgian named Chloe (Clemence Poesy) whom he is somehow able to sway and romance despite getting off on the wrong foot with his repeated, highly irreverent reference to a nearby dwarf named Jimmy (Jordan Prentice) as a “midget.” The duo ultimately end up in a party with Jimmy at their hotel room in a night that is filled with alcohol and drugs and hilariously concludes when Jimmy doubts Ray can deliver a karate neck-chop and the latter literally shows the former otherwise.
Any more about the plot I must leave unsaid but what is most fascinating about the film is the way in which writer/director Martin McDonagh (in his first feature film after making the Oscar®-winning short, Six Shooter) uses the various locations in Bruges to subtly transition his story’s tone shifts. Every picturesque location from the pictographic canals to the tall sculpture tower is ripe for comic effect when Ken sees them in awe and Ray with disgust and indifference. Though he depends maybe a bit too much on coincidence to bring all of his characters together, when the various tense and bloody final confrontations arrive and grow organically out of inherent character motivations, we are surprised at the darker weathers these scenic tourist attractions can carry.
Many people may wonder what a movie star like Colin Farrell is doing in a movie like this unless they saw him in another very dark comedy, Intermission. Here, back in his Irish roots, he shows his natural knack for comic timing and balances it with some tearful dramatic moments where he almost reduces himself to a puppy dog if that is possible for a hitman. He is well-matched by Gleeson, who plays just about the most soulful thug you will meet in the movies as he gradually becomes a sympathetic guardian of sorts for Farrell. Meanwhile, when Fiennes finally appears on screen in the last act of the film, he flares his nostrils so menacingly that he looks like the evil Voldemort dropped in the middle of a British crime thriller.
By the film’s end, Ray is still not any happier about being in Bruges and even laments that it is maybe this is what hell is like. What In Bruges makes inherently clear is how creating a hellish situation has nothing to do with the tourist surroundings and everything to do with what the inhabitants make of it. That is another way of saying that everyone should understand what he or she deserves in the end and coming to realize that is what guilt and repentance are all about.
Bottom line: Pretty close to brilliance.