Wednesday, June 14, 2017

In Bruges (2008)

When he accidentally kills a child during his first job of murdering a priest, his boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) sends hitman trainee Ray (Colin Farrell) and his older and experienced colleague Ken (Brendan Gleeson) to lay low in Bruges of all places. Bruges, as we will learn, is mostly known for being “the best-preserved medieval city in Belgium”.

Irish boy Ray really rather resents Bruges for not being Dublin, though he is clearly plagued by guilt badly enough that he’d be unhappy there too. He still gets into various adventures with a woman he falls for on first glance (Clémence Poésy), various people he can’t help but punch in the face and so on. Ken for his part rather enjoys a bit of a holiday from his murdering duties. Of course, Harry had a less than enjoyable reason for sending the two to the town.

By now, an encounter with a film described as a black comedy about two professional killers suggests to me another of these innumerable would be Tarantino films that came upon us after Pulp Fiction, usually made by people neither achieving a voice of their own nor a good copy of Tarantino’s. Fortunately, In Bruges’s director Martin McDonagh (whose next film, Seven Psychopaths I pretty much loathed when last I saw it, but let’s ignore that tonight) was already a well-known director of stage plays at the point when he made this film, so there was little chance of this going the road of mere copy.

Consequently, this is very much a film that just happens to use some of the same genre patterns Tarantino likes but approaches them from a very different angle. McDonagh’s film is a (very dark) character-based comedy that is also a complex philosophical mediation on questions of guilt, loyalty, the possibility of redemption, and the ironic cruelty of the universe or god.
While McDonagh treats the philosophical aspects of his film very seriously, and indeed manages to derive quite an emotional punch from them later on, the film has just as much room for the goofy, the weird, and the humanly touching, presenting all of its characters as complex and flawed humans in a brilliant way. McDonagh also succeeds at another difficult thing, creating a plot that is much less straightforward than it seems to be at first look yet which is as completely character-based as is the humour.

So it’s a good thing that his two main actors as well as everyone else involved bring their best to the screen. Gleeson – not surprisingly given he specializes in exactly that sort of thing – provides Ken with a certain hard-won dignity and decency the man clearly never realized he had. Farrell again demonstrates that he can actually be a nuanced and funny actor when he doesn’t have to waste too much energy on pretending he’s not Irish (seriously, unless the actor in question is Australian – to whom putting on accents seem to come natural for some reason - acting while doing a fake accent seems to lower any given actor’s abilities not having to do with said accent by fifty percent).

As a film director, McDonagh only feels like a stage director because he trusts his actors and the characters they play a lot; otherwise he quite obviously works from an understanding that film is a medium with rather different visual needs and possibilities than the stage is, yet never falls into the trap of overdoing camera tricks and visual effects to distraction. Also, for those among us who aren’t like Ray, McDonagh makes Bruges look very attractive, while again showing a discernment that avoids the dreaded tourist postcard effect. Things in this film are generally beautiful to look at, but that’s not their only point.

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