A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #5


2008, R, 107 mins.

Ray: Colin Farrell / Ken: Brendan Gleeson / Harry: Ralph Fiennes / Chloe: Clemence Poesy / Jimmy: Jordan Prentice

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Odd paradoxes aside, IN BRUGES just may be the very first PULP FICTION rip- off that feels fresh, invigorating, and unique all on its very own.  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.  

Like 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 smartness.  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.  

Under 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!” 

Ken, 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 a see-saw.” 

Ray, 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.  

Needless 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.  

When 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. 

IN 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. 

What’s 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.  

It's 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. 

The 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.

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