In Bruges (U.K., 2008) * * * *
D: Martin McDonagh
There are a number of points upon which In Bruges places great emphasis. A bottle is a deadly weapon. Bare hands can be deadly weapons, too. Many famous dwarfs have committed suicide. You cannot be held responsible for what you say or do under the influence of cocaine, but neither can those actions be easily forgotten. But most of all, it is stressed that Bruges is in Belgium. If you didn't know that, you could take (small) comfort that neither did Ray (Colin Farrell), a novice, Irish hitman who's been sent there with his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) for reasons unknown to either one of them. They suspect they're on a job, but they won't know until their short-tempered boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), calls them at their hotel. In the meantime, Ken is intent on showing Ray the local medieval architecture, although Ray thinks Bruges is "a shithole." While they wait for that fateful call, and sightsee, we see Bruges from Ray's point of view: as a dull tourist-magnet whose most promising attributes are (a) a film production in progress "with midgets," and (b) the drug-dealer servicing the Belgium film crew, attractive and, inexplicably, romantically interested in him. While Ray becomes entangled with the locals, Ken is alone when he receives the call from Harry--which will change everything.
As In Bruges is a black comedy about hitmen, you might suspect you've walked down this path already. Grosse Point Blank (1997), for example, or Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). What's refreshing and remarkable about In Bruges is that, despite its basic plot structure, the individual scenes are unpredictable, playing to the rhythms of the characters--characters you have not seen in films before. In Bruges is a black comedy aimed at intelligent adults; it expects you to keep pace with its imagination, while understanding when it's appropriate to laugh and when it is not--and why some key scenes play to both ends. It's written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh, and the script sharply uses the characters to drive the action. So diverting are its characters that although you know guns will eventually be brandished, and bullets will fly, you'd rather they didn't; you like these people too much to see them go down in a bloody battle. Thus, murder carries a weight rare in black comedies of this vein, although violence of other sort is dished out with abandon. After all, if someone comes at you with a bottle, however you react is just self-defense.
The cast is perfect, Farrell in particular a revelation as Ray, whose childlike qualities are pivotal to the film's major theme (never kill a child). Ray has all the depth of a thinly-sliced piece of sandwich cheese; when he struggles to come up with a clever scheme to convince Ken to let him leave the hotel room, you can see the thoughts working across his face as though pulled by slave labor. The real wonder is why Farrell, with talent like this, keeps getting typecast in films like Alexander (2004) and Miami Vice (2006). He seems more at ease playing the fool, and here he's a fool so instantly iconic that you could slap him on a Tarot card. Gleeson has been granted a more versatile career as a character actor, best known lately as "Mad-Eye" Moody in the Harry Potter films (there's a nod to the Potter films here that may make you weep with laughter). Like Farrell, he's exceptionally funny, and has a pair of scenes with Fiennes late in the film which are so good that you can rest assured he will not be recognized come Oscar time 2009. Fiennes essays a low-class crook chafing at the high class his money has bought him; he's quick to offense, with an impeccable since of honor and pride. It's the sort of role Bob Hoskins used to play, but since it's Fiennes--a man who could have had a career like Farrell's, but has instead played fat Nazis, disfigured sorcerors, and shy gardeners--the result feels like something completely new. It may be that Harry feels like a unique human being, even though his character--in this kind of film, in this genre--doesn't have to be. That's what's brilliant about In Bruges. It didn't have to be, but it's a deeply soulful and human satire. Plus it has the range to make dwarf jokes and Bosch references, sometimes in the same breath.