Last night, I watched In Bruges from writer-director Martin McDonagh, probably best known for the recent Seven Psychopaths. It’s interesting that his films are so visually interesting when he is, at heart, a playwright. But the thing about filmmaking is that it is a group effort. I know if someone were foolish enough to have me direct a film, I would hire a great cinematographer and carmeraman and listen to them very carefully. And for all I know, MCDonagh does the same thing.
The one thing that really does dominate the film is that it is shot in Bruges, which apparently is one of the most beautiful towns in the world. And great care is taken to make every shot beautiful. This is distinctly different from Seven Psychopaths, which was quite obviously meant to be ugly. All things equal, I’d rather watch a beautiful film. And In Bruges shows that pretty images don’t hurt a black comedy. In fact, I think they heightened the effect.
The plot of the film is simple: after accidentally killing a young boy during an assassination, a rookie hitman is sent to Bruges by a crime boss, where he will be murdered. The film lives in its own moral universe that has nothing to do with our world. But if that isn’t a problem, it’s a charming story. The crime boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), sends the rookie hitman, Ray (Colin Farrell), to Burges to give him a little joy before he has him killed. The hitman hates Burges, however. The other more experienced hitman, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), just loves Bruges. And along the way, they meet up with thieves, drug dealers, prostitutes, and an angry American dwarf who is very racist when he’s on cocaine.
It’s a bit of a problem that Ray dances on the edge of being completely unlikable. I found myself wishing through most of the film that Ken would just kill him so we could get back to our nice holiday with the entirely likable older hitman. But it never got too bad because Ray always seemed to shift back onto the likable side of that line. Even Harry with his queer notions of morality was often hard to dislike. In fact, there is a funny scene at the hotel where Ray and Harry negotiate how they will continue their gun fight outside so that they don’t accidentally harm the pregnant owner.
The problems with the film are confined to the ending. Even by its own terms, it gets far fetched. One character jumps off Belfry of Bruges to save another character before dying. It’s got to be ten stories high! There is no way anyone is going to survive for even a second after that fall—especially after losing most of his blood from a gunshot wound. But that is forgivable. In fact, it almost seems reasonable in the film. But the final couple of minutes change the filming style to make it all seem like a dream. This is done for thematically defensible reasons. But I don’t really think it works. What’s more, it is a hasty ending to a film that was deliberately (and enjoyably) paced.
Despite blowing the ending, I thought the film worked really well. I especially liked spending the time with Ken. I felt very connected with him: an older man who has lived a mixed life and who now just wants to enjoy the little things that are left. Part of that is Gleeson’s performance. And another part is the great chemistry between Ken and Ray. Ray’s constant juvenile complaints and Ken’s responses are what give the film much of its charm. And ultimately, it is a very positive film. Or at least as positive as a film can be that involves three murders, a drug dealer, and a racist dwarf.
Update (18 March 2014 5:27 pm)
I had meant to note that I think the Dwarf’s racist rant was meant to be a parody of Quentin Tarantino. That made it all the funnier to me.