In Bruges. 2008. Directed & Written by Martin McDonagh.
Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Jérémie Renier, Thekla Reuten, Eric Godon, & Ciarán Hinds. Scion Films/Blueprint Pictures/Focus Features.
Rated 18A. 107 minutes.
Martin McDonagh is a treasure. His writing in all forms is exceptional and he’s often very capable of subversive storytelling. As a writer myself and someone that tries his hand at writing for the stage, McDonagh’s The Pillowman completely shattered my preconceptions of what theatre is meant to be and how you can present difficult, wild topics to the audience without shattering them too much. Not just that play, his other works for the stage are great, too. Most of all he defies expectation.
In Bruges is a proper McDonagh mix of black humour, crime, a dash of love, and a nice heap of violence. The actual setting of Bruges, Belgium adds an interesting element. Amongst all the architecture out of the 15th century this story of conflicted criminals plays out, juxtaposing this beautiful, old city with the dirty, gritty crime happening below its surface. Anchoring the script are three performances that allow the wit in McDonagh’s characters and their dialogue to work magic. Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, and Ralph Fiennes are all equally important to the success of the film. They each give the comedy an edge and bring out every last stroke of genius in the writing.
There’s plenty to lap up in this dark comedy. It isn’t only funny, it has an impressive amount of emotional weight. In the skin of an everyday crime-thriller, McDonagh creates laughter while simultaneously pondering the existential crises involved in the world of cheeky hitmen with consciences. I haven’t enjoyed any other comedies this much since about 2000. Definitely stands as one of the best in the past couple decades, no question.
The comedy is beyond riotous. Little moments such as when the fellas run into an overweight family and try to warn them about going up a tower with narrow halls; Harry’s telegram to the hotel for Ken with “fucking” on every line at least once; the conversation between Ken and Ray about a “lollipop man” and their various musings on morality; that perfectly awkward yet hilarious scene where Ray punches out a man and his girlfriend, not just funny on its own but taking us back to the earlier conversation with Ken about if you’d hit a man wielding a bottle at you. One favourite moment is after Harry calls Ken and asks about Ray, questioning if he’s only having a wee, or if it was a poo.
There are far too many single moments and scenes to call out individually, lest we spend this entire review recounting every last chuckle.
There’s a major darkness cast over the plot, as well. Ray kills a priest, but in the crossfire winds up taking the life of a young boy. This haunts him, obviously, as the film moves on and the two hitmen move to the next supposed job, and never are those thoughts far from his mind. Of course this is also what puts them in Bruges in the first place. The darkness continues after we figure out specifically why they’re in Bruges – we assume early on it’s a job, and it is, however, there are complexities to this sticky story.
Part of the setting of Bruges is almost akin to Limbo, a Purgatorial stop before Ken and Ray face their final judgement. Perfect enough, Ray notices a painting called “The Final Judgment” by Hieronymus Bosch, which depicts a scene where people are laying dead all over the ground, as the saviour floats above in the sky ready to accept those who last through what I assume is The Rapture. Furthermore, other paintings concerning death and its approaching presence are in the gallery the men visit. This all comes after Ken is told by Harry that the job he’s on is Ray’s own murder, for botching the priest job. There’s a moment at the end calling back to these paintings, as Ray literally winds up in the middle of one life-sized replica of those paintings with their imagery of death.
The transition into an almost otherworldly space, this idea of Limbo, comes through the Bosch imagery once more. When the hitmen arrive in Bruges at first the place is bright and beautiful, the landscape is all light. Everything seems wonderful. As time passes, the visual aesthetic goes from light towards the dark. Then literally even the characters out of the Bosch painting turn up on the film set, wounds from images in the painting are similar to those Ray ends up with after getting shot. So even if this is a comedy there’s no less care for fine tuned filmmaking. This is an impressive feature debut from McDonagh. His experience in theatre lends itself to having a specific visual style. Not only does he know how to block scenes and dress a set to make things look interesting, film as a medium gives a director (particularly one whom might be considered an auteur) the aspect of post-production, of not being live, and so much more. McDonagh uses this every bit to his advantage.
Ultimately there’s an emotional component to the story, aside from all the darkly humorous bits and the dashes of violence and everything else. Once Ken gives Ray a chance to redeem himself there’s a glimmer of hope in all the shadiness. And as the plot wears on closer to the end there’s more significance placed on the relationships between characters. Harry even comes across as a real person after all his dour attitude and vitriolic dialogue, though that goes how it does and there’s no love lost. But just the brief moments where Harry and Ken discuss their past relationship are enough to flesh their characters out before the conclusion. Before that, we get a good look at how Ken and Ray have gotten close in their short time together, as the former essentially sacrifices himself in order to let his younger friend have a chance at redemption. This entire tangle of emotions sets up an excellent finale, equal parts tragic and wild.
One great moment I love so much (WARNING – SPOILER AHEAD) is when Ken uses the coins he’d tried to pay his into the tower with earlier to make sure nobody is standing below when he decides to jump. In an ironic, dark twist, if he were to have been let in minus ten cents then he’d not be able to warn people below the tower, and likely wouldn’t have ended up jumping at that moment. Small bits such as this are what makes McDonagh’s writing so intriguing.
I’ve always admired Brendan Gleeson as an actor. He’s versatile and simply a powerful talent. The writing of Ken as a character is good enough, but his portrayal makes it much more than entertaining. He shows us how a seemingly friendly guy can be part of this ugly world, of murder for hire, so on. More than that, through his relationship with Ray, the character of Ken develops and he comes to this point of realization later, culminating in the showdown between him and Harry. The range of which Gleeson is capable helps make this guy real, as Ken becomes a character with whom we can empathize, despite the fact he’s a hitman. That likeable, jolly quality in Gleeson comes out to help us relate to the man. Yet he’s always capable of being intimidating, so the contradictions in his character are remarkable in his hands.
Colin Farrell is the one I enjoy most. There are likeable qualities to both these men. Although Ray comes with an even further, almost innocent sense about him. This is in total conflict with the fact he’s killed a boy, though unintentionally. Still, this tough reconciliation is the crux of how we view Ray, how we experience what he experiences and assess that within ourselves. Farrell is a fucking laugh. Everyone’s funny, but he makes this all the better for playing the character so well, completely embodying Ray.
Then you can’t not love Ralph Fiennes. He’s another actor of whom I’ve been a massive fan for years. Fiennes is beyond talented. His depiction of Harry is different from all the same old British gangsters you see in so many other movies because he’s another contradictory sort, being a gangster and also being a loving father and husband. Well, he also has a strict moral code. He wants Ray dead for his mistake of killing a child, likely due to his own kids. So is he really all that contradictory? Yes, a vicious businessman in the murder industry. Yet obviously he keeps children out of it, probably women – that’s only a guess. Still there is a moral code and he tries sticking to it. You’ll see how closely when you get to the finale.
With a cast like this and the subversive, witty, dark writing of McDonagh, In Bruges is easily in my top ten comedies of all-time. If not the top five. Everything about it is so perfect and well placed that it’s hard not to enjoy each second. Farrell and Gleeson have a chemistry that’s hard to find, so there’s a buddy comedy aspect. Though one that’s pretty strange and way more hilarious than the atypical relationship we’d see in (most) American (Hollywood) productions. There’s so much to love. The cinematography of Eigil Bryld that makes Bruges leap off the screen into your lap. McDonagh and all his talents. A lead cast with more humour chops than the casts of most popular comedies (coughThe Hangovercough). If you can’t love this, that’s fine. It’s black comedy, pitch dark, at its best. Not everyone can dig it. For those who can there aren’t many modern comedies willing to be so darkly funny. Tuck in, enjoy.