The Bruges Chamber of Commerce should be delighted with at least part of Martin McDonagh
's film In Bruges, as it provides an unprecedented and absolutely ravishing look at the architecture of this gorgeous Belgian town that appears to have been dropped into the 21st century from a pristine, fairy-tale version of the Middle Ages. They should be happy as a good number of people, after seeing the film, will be tempted to hop on the next flight to the little jewel box of a medieval village, all canals and pristinely preserved Gothic architecture. Such town boosters will be less delighted with other aspects of this dark-as-night comedy, in which a pair of hitmen hiding out in the town spend their time arguing over whether or not the town is, in fact, "a shithole." Later on, the guns come out, large quantities of blood are spilled, and a story that had been weaving a fairy-tale ambience up until that point turns into an entirely different kind of fairy tale -- one that doesn't exactly cater to tourists.
Writer/director McDonagh has dabbled in fairy tales before, in his grimly funny and ultraviolent stage plays like the Tarantino-esque The Lieutenant of Inishmore and, particularly, The Pillowman, which knocked Broadway audiences for a loop back in 2005 with its mix of bloody, Grimm-like Germanic storytelling and anonymous, Kafkaesque modernity. With his feature directorial debut (his short film, Six Shooter, won an Oscar in 2006), McDonagh takes his particular theatrical affinity for finding cockeyed laughs in horrendous situations and creates a precisely structured and knock-you-down hilarious comedy of violence with a film that (hopefully) announces a great new cinematic talent. Article continues below
With In Bruges, McDonagh's ear for profane humor is almost in overdrive from the very start, with his Odd Couple of hitmen on the lam, yammering each other's heads off right from the get-go. Ray (Colin Farrell
) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson
) have arrived at a charming little bed and breakfast in Bruges (pronounced by all the English speakers in the film as "brooshz"). Ray is all twitches and elbows, supremely uncomfortable in this village that's the definition of "quaint," continually nonplussed by the jaw-dropping architectural beauty on display everywhere he looks. Ken is the more seasoned of the two, a hulking and squash-faced type who is endlessly enthralled by everything he sees, dragging Ray along on tourist outings like they were an old married couple.
The film is content to amble along with these two for quite some time, as they've got nowhere to go -- they've been sent to Bruges to lay low after a job by their boss back in England, Harry, and wait for his call -- so it's fortunate that McDonagh has not only the ravishing town as backdrop (captured with pristine clarity by cinematographer Eigil Bryld, who did similarly fantastic work on The King) but Farrell and Gleeson to carry what there is of a story. It's no surprise that Gleeson proves so adept in this delicate balance of comedy (he's not an actor one is ever disappointed by) but his talents are no less appreciated here. Farrell, however, is something of a revelation. An actor who showed great promise years back but who has been less than smart about his roles, too often submerging his considerable charm in overproduced vehicles like Miami Vice
, The Recruit, and (shudder) Alexander. With In Bruges, though, Farrell's daft wit shines through like a spotlight, playing Ray with a winning mix of bloke-like common sense and utterly vulnerable childishness.
There is quite a bit more to In Bruges than these hitmen nattering on about the town and their comic interactions with locals, ranging from charming drug dealers to a dwarf American actor, and it's in Ray's occasional bursts of frightful sadness that it starts to come out. McDonagh starts teasing away the layers to the characters' pasts, the real reasons why they've come to Bruges, and the judgment that awaits once they get that call from Harry. (It is not giving anything away to say that Harry is played by Ralph Fiennes
, and when he finally appears it's as though he's swallowed the soul of Ben Kingsley
's Don Logan from Sexy Beast and added a dash more psychotic fury.) The whole thing is a masterfully handled act of suspense, and one that the film manages with even more surprise since most viewers are going to be busy enough enjoying the banter between Ray and Ken that they won't even notice the story's pitch-black underpinnings until they've already been enveloped by the entire film. McDonagh may have some distance to go as a filmmaker -- the final confrontation that rages through the postcard streets of Bruges is perhaps over-choreographed and too lengthy -- but In Bruges should be considered a fantastic start to a new career.