Fucking Bruges. You’ll hear this several times, from various characters in this superb black comedy from writer/director Martin McDonagh (responsible for the excellent Seven Psychopaths). It’s hard to find a pairing of words that better summarises the unique appeal of what is one of the strongest debuts of any recent British film-maker.
Fucking Bruges, mutters the young, cocky Ray (Colin Farrell), as he arrives in the picturesque Belgian town for the first time. His colleague, the older, wiser Ken (Brendan Gleeson) by his side; two talkative Irish hitmen forced to hide out, for as-yet unknown reasons, in a place breathtaking to one and dull to the other. It soon becomes clear: the reason for their flight from London is related to Ray, something he has done. And so, they wait for further instruction from their boss, the enigmatic Harry.
In Bruges‘ theatrical release was missold slightly by a promotional campaign touting it as somewhere between a crazy crime caper and a gross-out comedy: Dwarves getting kung-fu chopped! Drugs! Hookers! Gunfights! An esteemed British actor playing against type (Ralph Fiennes as the ferocious boss Harry)!. But anyone coming to the film with such expectation should prepare to be blindsided by what is in fact a warm, disarmingly moving film. And one of enormous beauty.
The most obvious source of beauty is Bruges itself, with the film often feeling like a visual love-letter to a town that seems to bleed history and tradition. The camera dwells lovingly on the architecture, fairy tale mist hanging in the air and every other shot looking like a christmas card in motion. This certainly helps the film during the first act, which almost entirely consists of profanity-laced dialogue between the two hitmen, delivered with such naturalism as to constantly make the viewer forget these are men who kill for money.
This exploration into the everyday humanity of ordinary men with extraordinary jobs has of course been followed before, with Pulp Fiction‘s Jules and Vincent being the obvious precedent. But In Bruges is in a different universe to the irony-draped cool of Tarantino’s approach, instead offering a intensely character-led story whose more shocking moments are perfectly balanced by a warm-hearted love for its central cast. Much of this is owed to the relationship between Ray and Ken, who resemble a dysfunctional father and son on an ill-advised day out. Gleeson’s Ken is the cultured, genial father figure, enjoying the sights of Bruges: the architecture, the history pouring from every street and steeple. Ray, on the other hand, is the tantrum-throwing teenager, dragging his feet through ancient churches and more interested in the pub than art museums and 17th-century cobbled streets. Farrell delivers simply a career-best performance as Ray, all bravado and juvenility barely masking a soul wracked with guilt. Somehow, Farrell gives us a hitman with a sense of innocence.
Gleeson, too, demonstrates why he is one of the most gifted Irish actors of his generation, filling the screen with a paternal warmth and wisdom that is an utter joy to watch. Witness the way he looks proudly at his younger protÃ©ge as Ray prepares for a date with a local girl, and you cannot fail to fall in love with the duo. Both actors clearly have a ball with a simply fantastic script, tossing forth barbed exchanges and witticisms at every chance. An truism of well-written character-led films are that they are like spending time with treasured friends, and In Bruges is endlessly rewatchable in this regard. Even the villain of the piece, Harry, is a pleasure to behold, Ralph Fiennes giving us teeth-baring fury (apparently channeling Ben Kingsley’s turn in Sexy Beast). His showdown with Ken near the In Bruge‘s climax is nerve-wracking and hilarious in equal measure, not least due to Fiennes revealing the faintest threat of bonhomie, amidst all the spitting and swearing.
With the frequent hilarity of the dialogue, it is impressive the manner with which McDonagh is able to steer the film into darker waters. As Ray becomes increasingly tormented by the crime that has led the pair to Bruges, and Ken reflects on his own decisions in life, In Bruges gradually becomes a film about redemption. The medieval history of Bruges, permeated by so much religious imagery, ensures that the concept of judgement is always lurking near the surface. One early, seemingly throwaway scene has Ray and Ken at an art museum, reflecting on Hieronymous Bosch’s epic triptych ˜The Last Judgement’; Ken introducing the work as the screen fills with Bosch’s own visions of torment and suffering. And as Ray’s own redemption nears its conclusion in the film’s climax, such imagery is even made flesh as he finds himself stumbling onto the set of a surreal film, populated with characters from Bosch’s painting.
A slightly off-kilter feel exists throughout In Bruges, from the bizarre musings of ˜handler’ Yuri about the alcoves, to the whimsical-yet-haunting piano melodies of the soundtrack. Everything feels as though of another world, appropriate to the lost-in-time aesthetics of Bruges itself. Yet McDonagh’s strength as a writer and a director is to somehow ground all of this in the reality of the characters’ predicaments, using the bared humanity of Ray and Ken to lead us through this strange journey. It is hard to think of many successful films where the lead characters are likeable contract killers, where the love interest is a drug dealer who robs tourists and where a racist, prostitute-using dwarf ends up a friend.
But this is exactly why In Bruges is nothing short of an unmissable classic. With the beauty of Bruges the backdrop for violence, pathos and, well, gleeful obscenity, McDonagh’s debut film is a perfect blend of the sacred and the profane.