Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Written by: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes
Released: 2008 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: UK/USA / IMDB
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In Bruges is a curious film from fledgling English director Martin McDonagh. It tells the tale of two contract killers holed up in the historic Belgium city of the film’s title awaiting further orders after a botched assassination. However, interestingly rather than detrimentally, the film plays much like an action movie without any action, as if the more lively aspects of the plot happen before the movie begins and after it finishes. Unsurprisingly, it’s because of this the film is hard to place in a conventional sense. And, ultimately, it’s all the better for it.
Colin Farrell plays Ray, a man who has found his calling under the tutelage of hit-man veteran Ken (Brendan Gleeson). The pair check into a Bruges hotel booked for them by boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) after completing a mission in London. McDonagh plays on the generation gap between Ray and Ken: they’re like father and son on holiday together. Ray can’t stand Bruges, it doesn’t offer him any excitement. Ken, on the other hand, loves the preserved city and its historic buildings and postcard cobbled streets.
But Ken sees something in Ray’s youthful vitality that mirrors his own introduction to the world of contract killing. He also sees the pain and anguish that first got his young student into the game, and which was exacerbated by his accidental killing of a child on his first assignment. McDonagh focuses all his early attention on this parental-like relationship between the two hit-men, providing some lovely moments of endearing humour and poignant sadness.
The film’s pedestrian pace shows its roots in the western genre. In Bruges is very much a thinly-veiled European-based western in the conventional sense: it has the anti-hero characters fighting a cause beneath the law, the one town setting which the hit-men walk into at the beginning of the film, and the final shoot out. But McDonagh never allows the film, even during the almost plot-less first half, to become an overzealous homage to a genre he clearly has affections for. With some wonderful dialogue, filled with cross-cultural humour, the film becomes that most cherished thing: an original character study that loathes to be pigeonholed.
McDonagh weaves his story around the two characters of Ray and Ken for the first half of the film with a conversational tone which highlights the harsh reality of their lives. On the one hand, they try to lead somewhat normal existences – Ken enjoys sightseeing, Ray enjoys the beer and the women. But underneath Ray is wracked with guilt and struggling to come to terms living life without punishment for his crime. Ken, the aged assassin, can see his days are numbered, and whether he’s killed or actively walks away from the business, his future is uncertain. This fine line between light and dark is aided by cockney gangster Harry, whose straight-forwardness and amusing asides offers a quite hilarious introduction to his eventual brutality.
In Bruges, tellingly, is dominated by strong performances from Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Farrell shows his continuing growth as an actor, providing fragility in an image purporting toughness and machismo. There’s a lovely scene in a restaurant when, with Ray trying to sway the affections of a young Belgium girl, an American man sitting at the next table accuses her of blowing cigarette smoke into his face. Ray, instinctively, gets defensive, deciding to insult the man with references to Vietnam, unknowingly ignoring the fact he’s actually Canadian. After the man throws one too many accusations Ray’s way, he knocks him out with one punch. The man’s girlfriend suddenly swings a wine bottle in Ray’s direction to which he quips as if it’s an unfair advantage: “A bottle!” Dodging the swinging glass, he throws another punch, knocking the woman to the floor, snidely remarking: “Don’t bother.”
Gleeson is equally as good. He’s the experience to Ray’s naivety. The cultured father-figure Gleeson displays is perfectly countered by the youthful exuberance of Farrell’s Ray. The father-son-on-holiday motif is wonderfully exampled by the pair’s alternate opinions of the city. When Ken tells Ray they should head to the top of a historic tower to see the view, Ray dismisses the proposal: “The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that from down here!” Ken replies: “Ray, you are about the worst tourist in the whole world.” To which Ray, his childlike persona ensuring the last word, retorts: “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.”
Both Gleeson and Farrell benefit from McDonagh’s unique script. The dialogue has an authenticity born out of matter-of-fact observations and natural character traits. There’s a great example when Ray is telling Chloe (Clemence Poesy) about his profession. “I shoot people for money,” he says. To the same question from Ray, she replies slyly, “I sell cocaine and heroine to Belgium film crews.” Both, ultimately, are telling the truth.
When McDonagh finally resorts to plot somewhere around the half way mark, Fiennes is allowed to get in on the act, and as usual, he’s a joy to watch, practically stealing the show. Instructing Ken that he has to kill his protege because of the accidental murder of the child, Ken has to decide between his own life and that of the man he’s become so close to. Backing out of the task, he puts Ray on a train believing he will never see him again. Yet, Ray’s altercation with the Canadian restaurant customer brings him to the attention of the Bruges police, who quickly escort him back to the city. Meanwhile, on hearing about Ken’s disloyalty, Harry leaves London for Bruges to make both his hit-men pay for their misdeeds.
Fiennes’ entry into the film, aside from giving the plot an injection of pace, embodies the themes evident throughout the first half. He is at once a pacifier with his quick-talking humour and rampant swearing, and a violent, vile murderer. For Ray and Ken, contract killing is a profession with a dark side but their lives out of office hours are much the same as, say, travelling bankers in town for a conference. It is this line between light and dark that beautifully encompasses the entire film.
In Bruges is an accomplished, unique, and fascinating movie from a fledgling director who has quickly found his calling on the big screen. With a terrific script supported by strong performances, director Martin McDonagh has created one of the most original independent films of the last few years. In Bruges is an experience begging to be cherished.
Review by Daniel Stephens – See all reviews here