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 old-school partner Ken, the always fantastic Brendan Gleeson (TROY, THE GENERAL, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN), are told by their psycho boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) 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 classic 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. They drink, smoke, cuss, and get on each other's nerves. Then, Harry comes calling. And he’s pretty pissed off. I'll let you discover how an independent movie-shoot, a horse-tranquilizer abusing little person, a smoking-hot French drug dealer (Clemence Posey, you’ll be seeing more of her I think), and a bizarre nihilist figure into the plot. 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 left me speechless at times. 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 takes some chances in some darker, more reflective character moments; a less interested filmmaker would be more interesting in contriving an extra shoot-out (most of the gun-play is in the final reel). McDonagh also shows himself to be quite capable, yet never show-offy, with his visual style. Making great use of the medieval and gothic city of Bruges, McDonagh and his ace cinematographer Eigil Bryld create a nightmarish landscape that suits the damaged psyches of the morally conflicted hit-men perfectly. These are men who live by codes, no matter how deranged those codes may be. 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.
The acting is fantastic all around. Farrell, who is best when playing tightly coiled characters with a live-wire intensity buried underneath, is given some fantastic one-liners that he delivers with aplomb. But the side of Ken's character that draws the viewer in is his deep sadness over the death of the child he's accidentally killed. He's extremely broken up over it, rehashing it over and over again, and it's that element which creates a connection to the audience throughout all the strange plot twists. What could have been banal or trite is made resonant. It's really the focus of the piece. But McDonagh also wants to have some naughty fun, and 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) screen confrontations in recent memory. Fiennes, doing his best Ben Kingsley-in-SEXY BEAST-riff, steals every scene he appears in; what a rush it was to see this typically reserved actor chew the scenery with gusto. It's Harry's personal code of gangster ethics that ties IN BRUGES up in the final act, and the film requires a confident actor in order to pull everything off. Cursing up a storm and clearly having a blast, Fiennes should be cast as the villian in a James Bond film. And the older, regal Gleeson strikes perfect notes of melancholy and wisdom that balances off his hot-tempered partner. The film carries a scent of class with Gleeson along for the ride, as he embodies Ken with a soulful elegance that contrasts with Ken's volatile disposition. Gleeson has some heaving lifting towards the end of IN BRUGES and he really nails all of it; it's one of those performances that's destined become unfairly underrated.
IN BRUGES was a great surprise and a terrific little movie that I look forward to re-watching when it hits DVD later this year. It's always exciting when a new filmmaker comes along and makes a striking debut; who knows what McDonagh will do from here? Will he become another Mamet, doing work-for-hire scripting jobs while also getting his smaller, more personal stories made at the same time? Or will he concentrate on the stage? I hope to see a new film from him soon. IN BRUGES is a uniquely fresh take on some classic genre material. Check it out if it's playing in your area.