A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, R, 107 mins.
2008, R, 107 mins.
Farrell / Ken: Brendan Gleeson / Harry: Ralph
Fiennes / Chloe: Clemence Poesy / Jimmy: Jordan Prentice
paradoxes aside, IN BRUGES just may be the very first PULP FICTION
rip- off that feels fresh, invigorating, and unique all on its very
That is an ultimate compliment, seeing as the relative cornucopia
of Tarantino-inspired crime and gangster films that have evolved in
FICTION’s wake have hurtled at us with a nauseating pace over the past
decade. Like FICTION, IN
BRUGES focuses squarely on a decidedly humanistic and comic approach to
hitmen, usually a dour and dreary subject for the movies.
What I think this film does even better than Tarantino’s
is to find a delicate balance between madcap and hilarious laughs with a
bitter level of morose tragedy.
IN BRUGES (by the way, it’s pronounced “broozh”) marks the very first full-length feature film for celebrated Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, and his debut is an unqualified triumph. He may be familiar to some (he won an Oscar in 2006 for his short film, SIX SHOOTER, and his plays are widely regarded in Ireland and England as some of the finest of recent memory). IN BRUGES shows the relative filmmaking novice as a director and writer of maturity, acerbic and stinging wit, and dark pathos. His dialogue is as fresh as the conversations Jules and Vincent had in PULP FICTION about Quarter Pounders with Cheese and foot massages and has that rat-ta-tat fluidity and pacing that would make David Mamet proud.
the works of Mamet and the early films of Tarantino, McDonagh’s voice is
felt through and through IN BRUGES, and it is the film’s primary
delight: this is work where the words are to be relished, no matter how
cruel, vulgar, and politically incorrect.
Once the characters get going, they are like unstoppable
juggernauts of scatological, absurdist poetry.
You will simultaneously laugh, recoil, be shunned, and ultimately
and inevitably appreciate the film’s never-ending drollness and
Very few films have been so intelligently potty-mouthed.
Very few films have been so intelligently potty-mouthed.
The film also provides the two best written characters – hitmen or not – in many a moon, and they are played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the former with a staunch ferocity and child-like exuberance and the latter with a soulful, melancholic, and penitent disposition. Ray (Farrell) is a young rookie contract hitman, hotheaded and impulsive, and Ken (Gleeson) is the wise-old veteran that believes that patience is the better half of valor. After a botched hit which has left Ray damaged goods, the two have been instructed by their boss back home to visit the quaint, medieval city of Bruges, which we discover is in Belgium – especially for those geographically challenged that don’t know that fact.
McDonagh's assured and painterly eye, Bruges is a city of wondrous sights
and beautifully realized vistas, a 12th Century city of villas, dark
tunnels, castles, and fortresses.
How seeing this city shown in all of it’s nostalgic glory would
not convince any viewer of the film to visit it is beyond me.
As Ken proudly explains to the petulant Ray, “Bruges is the best
preserved medieval city in all of Belgium.”
Ray is too Dublin-centric to appreciate any part of any nation
other than his own backyard. He lashes back to Ken, in one of the film’s several
knee-slapping zingers, “If I’d grown up on a farm, and was retarded,
then Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t…so it doesn’t!”
being the older and more contemplative of the two, savers every moment in
the city that has apparently remained unchanged for centuries.
He approaches his tour with the enthusiasm of a child that is
engaging in new territory for the first time.
He sees towers and cathedrals made of stone and yearns to go in and
explore. Ray could not be
bothered. At one point Ken
wants to climb a wondrous tower for a “better view”, but Ray rather
sheepishly deadpans back, “Why go up there when I can see it fine right
here?” Later on Ken makes
even more attempts to engage Ray in the beautiful and captivating city by
telling him that “We shall strike a balance between culture and fun,”
and Ray snaps back with a bigoted retort, “Somehow, I think that the
balance shall tip in the favor of culture, like a big fat retarded girl on
despite all of his gnarly coarseness and depraved rants, is actually a
fairly sympathetic figure in the film.
There is a flashback, which shows why he harbors such deeply vented
pains. Back in Dublin he was
hired to kill a priest, and he did so successfully, if not in a rather
grizzly fashion (he blows the priest away while posing as a man in a
confessional asking for forgiveness).
What he immediately discovers afterwards was that the bullets also
struck the head of a praying boy nearby, killing the lad instantly.
This moment in particular is indicative of how skilled McDonagh is
at dramatically shifting a scene’s tone from shocking violence and
bloodshed to sadness and tragedy.
to say, and without giving too much away, Ray and Ken are sent to Bruges
primarily because of Ray’s massive screw-up, not to mention that the men
would need to be hid considering the fact that a boy was murdered, which
is really, really bad form for the Irish underground.
The boss, Harry, is an enigmatic figure at first, whom only appears
in the form of telegrams to the duo (one in particular is brilliantly
funny for its frequent usages of f-bombs) and on the phone with Ken, as
one conversation he has with him in particular is a masterpiece of quick
witted, back-and-forth verbal sparring.
Harry is finally revealed we learn that he is played by Ralph Fiennes, who
almost steals the thunder from Ferrell and Gleeson.
Fiennes’ mob boss – albeit appearing only sparsely throughout
the film - is one of the best ever written: What’s great here is that he
is not one of those obligatory mean spirited thugs.
He is a mannered, offensive, well-tailored, slippery-tongued brute
that is both a self-aggrandizing man of honor and a very loose cannon. The
way he speaks also shows the complexity of his thought processes and the
dizzying levels he tries to convolute any conversation. Look at one knee-slapping scene when he tries to buy a gun
for a hit and the man tries to sell him an Uzi, to which he pragmatically
retorts, “I’m not from South Central Los Angeles and I’m not
planning to mow down a bunch of ten-year old black kids in a drive by. I need a normal gun for a normal person.”
Then there are other scenes where Harry shows a surprising
consideration for his prey. At
one crucial point when it appears that he will off Ray the hitman then
tells his boss of how far the pair go back and how much he means to him.
Fiennes’ mob boss is so overcome with emotion that he nearly
starts to cry.
BRUGES is a captivating and enthralling travelogue, both in the literal
sense of portraying the endless grandeur of the Belgium city and for the
manner with which it takes the viewer on a narrative journey of the pair
of hitman as they both try to expel demons from the past.
Not much early on happens to Ray and Ken in the film as the
underlining story then develops a WAITING FOR GODOT-level of forward
momentum. A lot of
nothingness happens for awhile during IN BRUGES, but Ray and Ken kind of
emerge as Vladimir and Estragon figures for they way they deal with issues
of oppression, camaraderie, hope, corruption, and the bewilderment of
dealing with what’s to come. The
film has an absurdity to many of its high comic moments, but it also
develops tension and a sense of dread as it progresses forward.
Not to many movies achieve the unilateral level of dark laughs,
poignant emotion, and gruesome suspense as well as IN BRUGES does.
so compelling to this is the wonderful assortment of fascinating side
characters that Ray and Ken meet on their journey in Bruges.
First, Ray tries to hook up with a gorgeous blond bombshell named
Chloe (Clemence Posey) that he meets on a film set.
Ray is immediately intrigued by the movie being shot, seeing as it
has “midgets” in it, and he even attempts to befriend the midget - or
in his case, dwarf – star of the film, Jimmy (well played by Jordan
Pretence). Ray’s attempts
at wooing Chloe are hilariously inept (“Lot’s of midgets have offed
themselves, so I hope your’s doesn’t or your film is fucked”) and
even more funny is Ray’s repeated attempts to hit it off with the “midget”
actor that compels him so much.
Ray meets up with Jimmy in a bar one evening, awestruck by the
sight of Jimmy with a regular sized whore.
Within no time, Ray, Jimmy, and two prostitutes are in a hotel room
doing blow and rambling on about nothingness.
The scene ends with what has to be the funniest karate chop to the
neck I have ever seen.
film’s level of insatiable – almost unforeseen – forward drive that
makes it so engaging. IN
BRUGES will be remembered for how well it is able to surprise us with its
plot machinations and developments. The
more the film unravels, the more one is glued to his/her seat.
Best of all, McDonagh is able to embody IN BRUGES with a constant
vibe of brutally shocking laughs alongside bleak and disparaging tragedy.
The film maintains an intensity of eccentric farce, thoughtful
human drama, and miserable and maddening catastrophe, which is very
difficult to pull off fluently.
performances are all key to the film’s tone, and Colin Farrell and
Brendan Gleeson give Oscar nomination worthy performances as the two
disenfranchised hitmen looking for redemption.
Farrell has never been better than here, playing Ray with a sly
dichotomy of boisterous comic viciousness and mournful compassion.
Ray is a bad guy for what he does, but what makes him sympathetic
is how he struggles with his choices and, deep down, has noble-minded
impulses despite his outward façade of a contract killer.
Gleeson makes a highly effective foil to Ray as his Ken brings such
a touching and heartrending dispiritedness to his aging killer.
Even with Ray jabbering away incessantly, Gleeson maintains the
poise and focus of the scenes with his soft spokenness and astute ways he
observes those around him. Ralph
Fiennes, as mentioned, is both insanely hilarious and down right
scary as the mob boss that also comes to deal with upholding his own
pedigree of moral righteousness.
Martin McDonagh has been a celebrated and cherished playwright for some time now, but with IN BRUGES he can now proudly and confidently add successful director to the mix. This European gangster flick is an uncommonly intoxicating and hugely entertaining tragic-comedy that mixes bloodshed, a thrilling storyline, wonderfully evocative dialogue, and a sense of offbeat humor that dives into the pains of its characters. The film has two hitman characters as oddly likeable and thought provoking as any presented on screen and engages them in an underlining morality tale with brutal and unpleasant consequences. At the film’s heart, though, is McDonagh, whose script is as lively, energizing, brazen, and smart as anything Tarantino and Mamet have ever done. The end result here is one of the great first film efforts, and most likely one of the finest film going experiences of 2008. If IN BRUGES is any indication, then the movies have found the next innovative and revitalizing voice.