Martin McDonagh’s directorial debut In Bruges is a nasty, unpredictable piece of noir-soaked entertainment that pokes holes in the hit-man-on-the-lam genre while also displaying a wickedly funny sense of humor and a deathly serious sense of morality. McDonagh, an acclaimed playwright (The Pillowman, A Behanding in Spokane) directed from his own original screenplay, and crafted a David Mamet-esque big-screen debut with this tough-talking, wise-cracking, and happily bloody crime film that threatened to spiral out of control in the last act but didn’t thanks to some terrific performances and a surreal narrative. It’s the sort of movie that loves its own movieness, a work that’s steeped in tradition while also feeling uniquely original. It’s a debut that instantly noted the arrival of a talented new filmmaker, and if his follow up, Seven Psychopaths, wasn’t as fully realized, there was still a lot of demented fun to be had; it comes close in some ways to matching the anarchic spirit of Oliver Stone’s underrated U-Turn. If you saw the misleading trailer for In Bruges you might be under the impression that it’s an action film first and a dark comedy second. In reality, it’s the other way around; Focus Features cut together some dishonest previews trying to lure people in with the promise of constant gun fire and violence.
Colin Farrell, in what’s possibly a career best performance (his work in the trifecta of The New World, Ask the Dust, and Miami Vice is beyond underrated), is Ray, a Dublin-based hit-man who has just botched his first job. He’s accidentally killed a child after taking down his intended target, a priest. He and his partner Ken, the always fantastic Brendan Gleeson, are told by their wild-man boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, snarling and utterly amazing) to hide out in Bruges for roughly two weeks, or until he deems it’s safe to come back to Ireland. So the two men, in tried and true buddy movie form, get a hotel room in the ancient city and start doing some sight-seeing. They visit art museums, take a boat tour, and experience some night life. Then, Harry comes calling, and he’s pretty pissed off. The way an independent movie-shoot, a horse-tranquilizer abusing little person, a smoking-hot French drug dealer (Clemence Posey, so sexy), and a bizarre nihilist with a unique fashion sense all figure into the plot are things I will let you discover.
The climax, which is what the bullet-filled trailer is predominantly made up of, echoes back to Hitchcock while simultaneously calling to mind Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. It’s a heady mix of action, pathos, and jet-black humor that brings In Bruges to its satisfying conclusion. There is nothing cookie-cutter or “safe” about In Bruges, and the bold, surreal story turns that it took always keep me massively buzzed as a viewer. We’ve seen tales like this before so in order to make it fresh, McDonagh was required to have some fun with his characters and the plot. And fun he certainly had. He also showed himself to be quite capable, yet never show-offy, with his visual style, creating an excellent sense of atmosphere and dread. Making great use of the medieval, gothic city of Bruges, McDonagh and his ace cinematographer Eigil Bryld dreamt up a nightmarish landscape that perfectly suited the damaged psyches of the morally conflicted hit-men. These are men who live by codes, no matter how off-putting or morally reprehensible those codes may be, and the visual flourishes that went along with the thematic underpinnings were in perfect synch.
Politically incorrect at almost every opportunity and gleefully profane (there are lots of F-words), In Bruges carries a subversive, casual disdain for Americans that was aggressively funny. McDonagh, who is Irish, has created characters who speak their minds, no matter how rude, racist, or inconsiderate they may sound. Farrell, who is best when playing tightly coiled characters with live-wire intensity buried underneath, was given some fantastic one-liners that he delivered with a great sense of humor. A stand-out scene, taking place in a restaurant where Ray gets into it with an American couple, is one of the funniest (and meanest) scenes in recent memory, displaying true attitude that makes sense rather than just being thrown in for shock value. Fiennes, doing his best Ben Kingsley-in-Sexy Beast-riff, stole every scene he appeared in; what a rush it was to see this typically reserved actor chew the scenery with such gusto. And the older, regal Gleeson hit perfect notes of melancholy and wisdom that was well-balanced in terms of his hot-tempered partner. This film was a massive surprise when I first saw it back when I was living in Los Angeles, and over the last few years, it’s a title that I’ve come back to on any number of occasions. It’s currently streaming on Netflix, and the Blu-ray looks absolutely fantastic.