EDITOR’S NOTE: Writer-director Martin McDonagh,** Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are all Irish. The connection is tenuous, but who cares?
Written By: Daniel Kinsley
In Bruges is undoubtedly one of those films: you either love it, or you haven’t heard of it yet. It would not be quite accurate to call it a cult film, but it is the sort of movie people will continue to discover and wonder just why the hell they did not catch it the first time around.
The setup is deceptively simple. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play two hit men sent to Bruges (Pronounced Broozh. It’s in Belgium) to lay low after a job gone wrong. Given the warm (and very funny) chemistry between the two leads, that would likely be enough to make for an entertaining film. Writer-director Martin McDonagh has a bit more on his mind than that, though, and along with some truly delightful performances, the film pulls off a razor sharp balancing act between existential fear and jet black comedy. It’s this tight-rope act that creates something that feels truly unique.
Upon arriving in Bruges, the film quickly establishes Ken (Gleeson) as the wiser and wearier of the two. Gleeson is one of our most reliable character actors, and as the straight man, he brings a pathos to the role that plays like gangbusters against the more manic Ray (Farrell). The film gets a ton of mileage simply from mining Ken’s fascination with the quaint beauty of the city against Ray’s complete disdain of it.The film does a terrific job at selling us on the wonder of a place filled with as much history without ever feeling like a vacation ad, thanks largely to Ray and his biting wit. Farrell, for his part, is the beating heart of the film, turning in what is far and away career-best work. Ray is a very funny man, but he’s also a deeply damaged one, and Farrell sells every facet of this very complex character.
When Ken is finally contacted by their employer, Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes), he is given instructions to kill Ray. Although Ken pleads his partner’s case, Harry is steadfast that Ray must be killed. This sets off the remaining plot of the film, casting a net that will include a dwarf actor (Peter Dinklage) and the lovely PA-cum-drug-dealer (Clémence Poésy) steals Ray’s heart. The great irony of it all is that Bruges was meant to give Ray one last beautiful memory before being sent to the afterlife.
The balance between life and death is a subject that pervades the film. Much of the action set into motion by each character is based on their own personal sense of morality. Early in the film, Ray and Ken visit several famous paintings containing religious iconography. These images continue to appear throughout the film, suggesting that the men are in the midst of facing a judgement of sorts of their own. It is not a coincidence that the film is set at Christmas, giving Bruges an ethereal look, but more importantly, setting the stage for the larger questions on McDonagh’s mind. What does it mean to live a good life? Is killing ever justified? But perhaps most importantly, can a sinful life be redeemed?
The film unfolds with the kind idiosyncrasy that could be cloying at best in lesser hands. The bare bones of the story beats may make it sound like another Guy Ritchie or Tarantino inspired attempt at style, but the film is much more assured and confident in itself. In playing out its very unusual journey, the film reaches an climax that is satisfying both emotionally, and in the way its disparate plots are pulled together. It all comes together in a manner that feels truthful to the characters as well as the film’s greater thematic aspirations.