Outrageously rude. At times massively offensive. Utterly hilarious. This should adequately describe the script of Martin McDonagh’s debut feature, whose snappy quotable dialogue and dark humour will inevitably draw comparisons to the work of David Mamet. But where Mamet’s frequent artificiality draws him as many detractors as acolytes, In Bruges utilizes McDonagh’s considerable stage experience to forge a comedy-drama refreshingly driven by deep characterization rather than high concept.
We are, of course, in Bruges, the picture-postcard Belgian city enthusiastically described in the guidebook as “the best-preserved medieval city in Belgium”, for what that’s worth. Enter our two main men: Ken, the wisened face and portly presence of Brendon Gleeson, is keen to immerse himself in the city’s sights and sounds; his younger travelling partner Ray, a baffled-looking Colin Farrell, is mortified at the prospect of spending any time at all in what he cheerily describes as a ‘shithole’. If our sense of location is firm, just why these two men are here is decidedly less clear. The opening monologue tells us a little: Ray is a hitman whose last whacking went decidedly awry, so he has been told to hole up in his present location. But as he questions – why Bruges? It is entirely possible to hide in Croydon, after all.
Comparisons to Harold Pinter’s drama The Dumb Waiter are inevitable; in that play, two hitmen have to fulfill seemingly arbitrary orders emerging from the titular dumbwaiter, responding to them via a strange speaking-tube. Here, they use the rather more conventional means of a telephone to their mysterious paymaster Harry, Ralph Fiennes in full-on cockney gangster mode, who seems comically keen on them enjoying their newly-found surroundings. Ray tries his best, not only scoring a date with a beautiful local, but also befriending a ketamine-taking dwarf. As one does on holiday.
Needless to say, the full extent of Harry’s plan for the two men becomes apparent, forcing difficult decisions to be made, and loyalties to be tested. What keeps the film constantly engaging is how it chooses to reveal the answers to its mysteries slowly. McDonagh controls the narrative with a tight precision that would put many another screenwriter to shame; there is no over-loading of exposition, allowing character and plot to slowly unfurl naturally, and for situations to emerge and resolve themselves believably. If the hitman film is one loaded with genre traditions, this is one inventive enough to keep the audience guessing at every turn.
Given his theatre background, it is little surprise McDonagh coaxes two superb performances from his leads. Gleeson is, as always, able to inject real pathos into his Ken – the kind of outstanding character acting we have come to expect from him. If there is a surprise, then it is in the depth Colin Farrell demonstrates he is capable of: charming, aloof, menacing, witty – but beneath it all frightened, unable to reconcile himself with what he has done. Not only do the two stand as great characters individually, the interaction between them is priceless. Their comical banter, enhanced by the clashing of their clear personality differences, places their unlikely partnership as one of the funniest in recent years – the De Niro / Grodin axis of Midnight Run (1988) the closest comparison I can come up with. There is also real tenderness underneath it all; that neither man has any close family to speak of means they really only seem to have each other.
The humour of the film is decidedly dark, as would fit a story about paid killers. The easily-shocked or offended would do well to stay away – not only are there liberal uses of all available profanities, there are also some decidedly un-PC comments by our two straight-talking assassins, as well as their similarly unrestrained boss. Violence is frequent – in Sopranos fashion it is sometimes comic and sometimes certainly not – you have been warned.
The difficulty of moving from a stage career to directing films is ensuring the resulting work is sufficiently cinematic. In Bruges wholly succeeds in this respect by making its location an integral part of the whole: much like the Vienna of The Third Man (1949) and Before Sunrise (1995), or the Venice of Don’t Look Now (1973), the location almost becomes a character in itself. That the latter film is an explicit reference in the diegesis is no stray piece of homage. Martin McDonagh has made the transition to the screen from the stage with considerable panache, creating a fine character-driven piece that has no trouble standing up as a piece of cinema. It he can continue to craft films as good as this, we are in for some considerable treats in the future.