Just when you think you’ve seen every variation of the gangster movie, along comes In Bruges, which is as fresh a take on the genre as you could wish for. Director Martin McDonagh described the film as a “black comedy about despair”, which is a perfect summary, but the film is so much more than that. Original and offbeat, the plot twists and turns in unpredictable and exciting directions with enough colourful characters, wonderful lines, absurd situations and laugh-out-loud funny scenes to satisfy the most jaded of palates. There’s plenty of violence and gunplay, mixed in with guilt, betrayal, romance and even a stab at redemption, but interestingly the film shines brightest when it simply focuses on a couple of men sitting around talking about those things.
Two Irish hitmen, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), have been sent to Bruges by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to keep a low profile after their last job went badly wrong. While the philosophical old pro Ken falls under the spell of Bruges, “the most well-preserved medieval city in Belgium”, his younger partner most definitely does not, “it’s a shithole”. As they tour gothic churches and art museums during their enforced stay, Ray complains, “I hated history. It’s all just a load of stuff that’s already happened”, though he perks up after meeting the sexy Chloe (Clémence Poésy). Ray needs someone or something to take his mind off his disastrous last hit, when he accidentally shot a boy while killing a priest. This is against Harry’s gangland code (“killing the priest was business, but blowing a kid’s head off just isn’t done”), so he orders Ken to kill Ray, but when things don’t go to plan (again), Harry goes to Bruges to take care of things personally.
"Hurry up, Harry"
Incredibly, In Bruges is director Martin McDonagh’s first full-length feature film, though he did win an Oscar in 2006 for his short film Six Shooter, which addressed similar themes. McDonagh has said that he’s inspired by Scorsese and Tarantino, but this remarkable debut also has similarities to House of Games, the first film by David Mamet, who shares a liking for clever, sometimes vulgar dialogue. McDonagh made his name as a playwright with acclaimed productions like The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which maybe explains why his film has such a firm grasp on character, which is explored through dialogue (à la Mike Leigh) as much as action. In Bruges has all the action and flow of a dynamic film, but the pain, drama, humor, and sharp characterisations could only come from someone who’s spent a lifetime writing stories that rely solely on dialogue for emotional content.
Indeed, it’s McDonagh’s gift for language that makes this film a unique pleasure. The natural conversations are a breath of fresh air, chock-full of wonderful lines and a distinctly Irish wit that is robustly obscene. In spite of the visual treats offered by the city of Bruges and some surreal scenes, the dazzling dialogue (and the way it is delivered) is the best thing about the film. The slick, snappy exchanges between Farrell and Gleeson are even funnier and more profane than the interactions between Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction: “Two manky hookers and a racist dwarf. I think I'm heading home.”
"Shot by both sides"
Farrell and Gleeson have a wonderful chemistry together, content to hang out with each other one minute, but bickering like an old married couple the next, “Two weeks? In fucking Bruges? In a room like this? With you? No way.” Ken makes the best of their enforced stay and clearly enjoys the city’s scenic beauty, while Ray is bored stiff by the sightseeing.
Ken: We shall strike a balance between culture and fun.
Ray: Somehow I believe, Ken, that the balance shall tip in the favor of culture, like a big fat fucking retarded fucking black girl on a see-saw opposite... a dwarf.
They make an Odd Couple, but develop a warm, caring relationship with Ken at times acting like a concerned friend and at others like a (disgruntled) parent, essentially baby-sitting Ray for Harry until things cool down. While Ken and Ray exchange barbed remarks, it is clear that they rely on each other like father and son.
Ken: Ray, did we or did we not agree that if I let you go on your date tonight, you'd do the things I wanted to do today?
Ray: We are doing the things you wanted to do today.
Ken: And I would do them without you throwing a fucking moody, like a five year old who's dropped all his sweets.
Ray: We didn't agree to that.
Even though Farrell’s hangdog expression and Gleeson’s girth are reminiscent of a Celtic Laurel and Hardy, McDonagh never lets us lose sight of the fact that Ken and Ray are hard men engaged in an ugly business.
"Handbags and gladrags"
Gleeson excels in his role as the weary gangster pondering the possibilities for his own redemption. Nobody can play a more sympathetic bad guy, making the most of the contradictions between his menacing bulk and gentle eyes. Gleeson brings a noble humanity to Ken, every feature on his tired old boxer’s face accentuating the sadness that he has seen.
But if Gleeson is reliably excellent, Farrell is absolutely superb, confirming his status as a terrific character actor. He hasn’t been this good for ages. There is a cracked soul behind his funny, moody façade (and expressive eyebrows). Ray is violent and destructive, but he’s also a confused kid struggling with the guilt that threatens to consume him. It’s a tribute to McDonagh’s skill that the film remains so funny, while he does justice to the characters’ anguish. In Ray’s case this is through his child-like behaviour, which can be vulnerable and sulky, but can also explode into delight, such as when he first sees the film set,: “They’re filming midgets!”
"When Irish eyes are smiling"
Although there are many melancholy moments and poignant scenes, the film balances this with some hilarious set-pieces. Much of the humour develops out of character and smart observations, but some of the comedy is almost slapstick with vicious jokes about fat people, a racist dwarf and a gay skinhead. It’s not exactly politically correct, but it is enormously funny, though not quite as enormous as the unfortunate obese American tourists, who are heartily insulted by Ray, when planning to climb up Bruges’ famous bell tower:
Overweight Man: Been to the top of the tower?
Ray: Yeah... yeah, it's rubbish.
Overweight Man: It is? The guidebook says it's a must see.
Ray: Well you lot ain't going up there.
Overweight Man: Pardon me? Why?
Ray: I mean, it's all winding stairs. I'm not being funny.
Overweight Man: What exactly are you trying to say?
Ray: What exactly am I trying to say? You’s a bunch of fuckin' elephants.
[overweight man attempts to chase Ray around, but quickly grows tired]
Ray: Come on, leave it fatty!
In fact, our American cousins are on the end of some pretty harsh treatment from both Ray, who beats up a Canadian couple, believing them to be American, for objecting to him smoking (“That’s for John Lennon, you Yankee fuckin’ cunt!”); and Ken, who is rather more restrained, but no less cutting:
Ken: You from the States?
Jimmy: Yeah. But don't hold it against me.
Ken: I'll try not to... Just try not to say anything too loud or crass.
"You're a fucking inanimate object!"
The gallery of supporting characters is equally vivid, leading to a succession of entertaining encounters. Ralph Fiennes in the role of snarling Cockney crime boss Harry is as surprising a piece of casting as Ben Kingsley’s thug in Sexy Beast, but his performance is splendidly sinister, imbued with malice and humour in equal measures. He is calm and contained, clipped in speech, but has the worst temper imaginable and is prone to extreme violence. An old East End villain, he knows what he wants:
An Uzi? I'm not from South Central Los Angeles. I didn't come here to shoot twenty black ten year olds in a drive-by. I want a normal gun for a normal person.
With its banter, bravado and violence, this is a very masculine film, but there is space for a couple of well-written and engaging female characters, namely Chloe, an impossibly saucy Belgian drug dealer, and Marie, the pregnant owner of the hitmen’s hotel, who are far more than diversions. Chloe proves more than a match for Ray on their first date:
Chloe: Okay. So, you've insulted my home town. You were doing really well, Raymond. Why don't you tell me some Belgium jokes while you're at it?
Ray: Don't know any Belgium jokes, and if I did I think I'd have the good sense not to... hang on. Is Belgium with all those child abuse murders lately? I do know a Belgium joke. What's Belgium famous for? Chocolates and child abuse, and they only invented the chocolates to get to the kids.
[Ray sees Chloe's shocked expression]
Chloe: One of the girls they murdered was a friend of mine.
Ray: [after a long pause, feeling bad] I'm sorry, Chloe.
Chloe: One of the girls they murdered wasn't a friend of mine. I just wanted to make you feel bad. And it worked! Quite well.
On the same movie shoot where Ray meets Chloe, he also makes the acquaintance of Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), an angry, drug-snorting, racist dwarf, whose views are so extreme that Ray eventually fells him with a karate chop to the neck. Pretty sick, you might think, but: (a) it’s hard to fault McDonagh’s for being so funny; and (b) the midget was asking for it.
You could argue that the beautiful city of Bruges is also a character with its cobbled streets, impressive architecture and canals featuring strongly throughout, but McDonagh does an interesting thing with the city, using it to develop his characters:
Ken: Coming up?
Ray: What's up there?
Ken: The view.
Ray: The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that down here.
Ken: Ray, you are about the worst tourist in the whole world.
Ray: Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't.
Some film buffs have made great play of the evocative use of canals in “the Venice of the North”, comparing In Bruges with the legendary Nic Roeg chiller Don’t Look Now. The reference is made overt when Chloe describes the film within the film: “it’s too strong to call it a homage to Don’t Look Now”. For me, a far better comparison would be Fargo, where you also have bad guys indulging in some really graphic violence, but speaking in a simple, funny dialogue. Or if you want an Irish influence, how about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot? Except this time Harry turns up.
"Cheer up, it might never happen"
The film also contains some visual references that inform you of McDonagh’s intentions, such as a television scene from Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, which should warn you that the film will move in unexpected directions. Similarly, the use of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of a prisoner being flayed alive suggests that the film will say something about the spectacle of violence. On the other hand, it is also used as an opportunity for a good Spurs joke:
Ken: Purgatory... what's that?
Ray: Purgatory's kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren't really shit, but you weren't all that great either. Like Tottenham.
Although much of the humour is tasteless, the film is surprisingly thoughtful, supported by compassionate humanity. None of the characters deserve our sympathy, but they are slowly revealed to be not just killing machines, but complex human beings with secrets and regrets. We’re probably not supposed to like Ken and Ray too much, but by the end of the film we feel genuine affection for them. At the very least, we definitely enjoy listening to them talk.
In Bruges is full of contradictions: for a very quiet film, it has some explosive moments. It may be out to shock you, but in its own way it’s also rather moral, as the main characters face up to their demons - a morality lesson taught by immoral men. It’s a thoughtful film that will make you laugh a lot and I can only agree with Chloe on her first date with Ray: “There’s never been a classic movie made in Bruges until now”.