United Kingdom, 2008
Directed By: Martin McDonagh
Written By: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language and some drug use
This review was originally posted March 1st, 2008.
Martin McDonagh’s previous film, Six Shooter, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 2007, was shown to me by a friend without any caveats attached, and McDonagh is a director that requires…no, necessitates caveats. His blend of black humor, violence, and human despair was not only off-putting, it was borderline offensive. Caught unawares, I was mortified.
I was more prepared for In Bruges (pronounced ‘broozsh’ – you know you’ve picked a bad title for your film when the critic has to tell people how to pronounce it). The story is simple and unoriginal. Two Irish hitmen (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) flee to Bruges in Belgium after a job goes sour in London, where they are to await instructions from their caustic boss (Ralph Fiennes). As they stave off boredom among the colorful locals (including an attractive drug dealer and a racist dwarf), their patience and loyalties are tested. Because they are hitmen, and because their boss is particularly volatile (in that “You talkin’ to me?” way that Joe Pesci was in Goodfellas), you know that shootouts and blood will be had before the end.
That the plot is thin and derivative doesn’t matter, however, since McDonagh takes the same approach to story that Tarantino does – he doesn’t care. Its not about what happens so much as it is about what is being said while things happen.
KEN: Don’t you find Bruges impressive?
RAY: If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.
The quotes come quick and razor sharp, a sort of male version of the unrealistic uber-hip banter found in The Gilmore Girls. People don’t really talk like this, but I’ll gladly sacrifice realism when it’s this entertaining.
It isn’t McDonagh’s dialogue, however, that can be difficult to take – it’s his extreme juxtaposition of tones, which swing from gut-wrenching drama to screwball comedy to pitch black humor in the span of minutes. While he’s adept at balancing such dissonant scenes, the effect can be quite jarring if you’re not ready for it. The only thing I can think to liken it to is The Color Purple, which I realize is a comparison that initially makes no sense. In style, the films are as different as oil and water, but the emotional beats are the same. One moment you’re laughing uproariously with the characters, the next you’re weeping with them. Many filmmakers effectively blend pathos and humor, which isn’t unique to McDonagh or In Bruges. What is unique is the speed with which they’re blended. McDonagh shifts from making midget jokes to grieving for murdered children in the blink of an eye.
This feels crude and exploitative, but McDonagh is taking it all very seriously at the same time. His approach to the gloomy subject matter – depression, murder, betrayal – is both cavalier and sincere. This paradoxical attitude is reflected in every aspect of the film. Take, for example, the midget. When Ray first sees him shooting an independent film in the streets of Bruges, he yells out gleefully, “They’re filming midgets!” Later, as a pickup line, Ray goes on and on, to great comedic effect, about how most midgets commit suicide because they’re depressed by their size. From a humor standpoint, taking cheapshots at midgets is right up there with picking on mentally handicapped children. But McDonagh turns around and makes the midget, Jimmy (Jordan Preston), a central character whom you actually begin to care about by the end of the film. So is he mocking midgets or is he portraying them as genuine human beings? Both, it appears. When McDonagh begins applying this contradictory perspective to more serious fare, such as suicide, you’ll either embrace it or recoil in disgust. Both reactions would be legitimate.
One last thing needs to be noted: Colin Farrell is brilliant here. I’ve never liked him as the Heroic Leading Man he’s historically been cast as. I’d rather watch Russell Crowe carve up the scenery than Farrell flash his pretty face, which is all he ever seemed to do. Here, though, he steals every scene, both comedic and dramatic. If he chooses more roles like this and stays away from the Alexanders and the S.W.A.T.s that are certainly clogging his agent’s in-box, his career will finally be exciting to watch.
So, caveats to consider when watching In Bruges: expect coarse humor on delicate topics, unflinchingly raw episodes of violence, and wild shifts from hilarity to heartache. I would have written McDonagh off as a wannabe Tarantino a decade too late, except that he almost made me cry.