Phil on Film Index
Monday, May 19, 2008
Review - In Bruges
Bruges is an unlikely setting for a chase sequence involving a gun-toting cockney gangster and an Irish hitman, but that's exactly what comes to pass towards the end of Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, and it was roughly the point where my patience with this exasperating movie finally snapped. Prior to the last twenty minutes – which is where the wheels completely come off – I'd found plenty of things to enjoy in this pitch-black comedy, but they were all just individual moments, and every time the film struck gold it would almost inevitably spoil the mood with a crass error of judgement in the next scene. McDonagh won an Oscar in 2004 for his short film Six Shooter and he re-teams with Brendan Gleeson for his feature debut, the great Irish actor starring as world-weary assassin Ken, who has arrived in Bruges with young partner Ray (Colin Farrell) after a botched hit. For Ken, this is a wonderful opportunity to explore "the best preserved medieval city in Europe" and to drink in its many cultural delights, but for Ray this quaint town is a crushing bore. With his hands stuck fast in his pockets and a permanent frown creasing his brow, Ray follows his companion around like a sulky child, while his thoughts constantly drift back to an innocent victim, caught in the crossfire on a recent job.
This is a much more relaxed and likable Colin Farrell than we've seen in recent movies, and perhaps the simple opportunity to play a role in his native Irish accent has allowed him a sense of freedom that gives his character a roguish charm. While he and Gleeson give comically astute performances, they also give their characters an edge of vulnerability and self-doubt, with Gleeson's Ken looking for a new direction in life, while rookie Ray wonders if he's actually cut out for this occupation. Most of the attention paid to In Bruges will focus on McDonagh's snappy dialogue and the film's violent twists, but one of the most pleasing elements for me was the way the two central characters kept the film anchored with a solid emotional core. The parts of In Bruges I enjoyed most were the ones that let the two characters simply play off each other; the surrogate father-son relationship that slowly develops between them might be obvious and hackneyed, but it feels warm and real.
Such moments are little respites of calm amid the storm. McDonagh likes to prod and tease his audience in the hope of getting some kind of reaction, and he certainly can't be accused of playing it safe with this screenplay. In Bruges is avowedly non-PC, with McDonagh finding a way to cram in gags about dwarfs, gays, fat people, prostitutes, blacks, Americans and child abuse; and while some of this stuff is very amusing, it occasionally feels like the film's plot has been sidetracked purely to let the director indulge in a spot of button-pushing. McDonagh has a gift for profane dialogue, though, and – aided by his cast's expert delivery – most of the lines he provides for In Bruges manage to be smart and funny without feeling overwritten; with the most notable exceptions being those uttered by Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who turns up in the film's second half. Harry is Ken and Ray's boss. It was he who sent them to Bruges in the first place, and it's he who answers the question "Why don't you both put down your guns and go home?" with the words "Don't be stupid, this is the shoot-out". It's a line that sound self-conscious and false – reminding viewers that this is only a movie – and, come to think of it, self-conscious and false are the words I'd use to describe Fiennes performance as a whole. As soon as Harry appeared on screen I was reminded of Ben Kingsley's Don Logan from Sexy Beast, and the comparison does Fiennes no favours. Logan was a force of nature, while Harry just seems like a stiff, second-rate imitation; and in a film that takes such care over its central characters, this third party doesn't feel like he belongs.
Harry arrives in Bruges late in the film to take matters into his own hands after being left unhappy by the way Ken and Ray are handling things, and from this point onwards In Bruges lurches into a tailspin from which it doesn't recover. McDonagh puts himself through a ridiculous amount of contrivances to bring his characters together for the climactic scenes, and it hardly seems worth the effort when half of them wind up dead in the carnage that follows. I thought I was going to hate In Bruges early on, after seeing the callous way a child's death was handled, but its humour and style slowly managed to win me over before this nonsensical finale ripped apart all of the good work McDonagh and his cast had put into the picture. The arbitrary and implausible death of a supporting character felt like a particularly tasteless blow, and it ensured I left the cinema feeling dejected and betrayed by a film that promised more. I still think Martin McDonagh promises more – much more – and it will be interesting to see how his career develops as he hones his considerable talents; but we probably won't see his best work until he stops trying so hard to impress.