This film is about two Irish hitmen, Ken and Ray, who are forced to take a sort of minibreak in Bruges (hence the title; hence why this film isn’t, say, In Milton Keynes) on the instruction of their boss, Harry, who wants them to lie low for a while. The film is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright famed for The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Pillowman, but I don’t know. In Bruges has some cracking lines in it, a cracking performance from Brendan Gleeson as Ken, and some very funny, provocative jokes, but I still don’t know. Ken and Ray are utterly cavalier when it comes to violence, the kind who would blow your head off soon as look at you, and after No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood and Sweeney Todd, I wonder if I’m not a little fatigued by men who deal with the world in this way. Obviously, Quentin Tarantino is actually the one to blame, so if you see him, do me a favour and trip him up or put him in a half nelson or something. Whatever you do, don’t slice the skin off his nose as if you were peeling a peach, as that would be playing right into his hands.
Certainly, In Bruges opens prettily enough in Bruges (there’s a thing), which is beautiful, with its medieval buildings, cobbled streets, picturesque squares and canals. Much is made of the fairytale quality of the city — ‘It’s a fairy tale, innit?’ Harry keeps telling Ray and Ken over the phone — so perhaps ultimately splattering it with blood and profanities is McDonagh’s way of giving the finger to heritage movies, although why you would want to give the finger to heritage movies is anyone’s guess. I love heritage movies. Whatever, Ken (Gleeson), the older and wiser one, is totally enchanted, lapping up all the architecture and art while Ray (Colin Farrell), the volatile one who may also be slow-witted, is not enchanted by Bruges at all. ‘It’s a shithole!’ he declares. ‘If I grew up on a farm, and if I was retarded, Bruges might impress me,’ he later adds.
Ray is jumpy and twitchy. Back home, Ray botched his first assignment — the assassination of a priest — by also accidentally killing a young boy. We see this in flashback along with the bullet hole blasted though the child’s forehead. (Cheers, Quentin; thanks a lot). However, although Ray is meant to be jumpy and twitchy, Farrell plays jumpy and twitchy very jumpily and twitchily indeed, with his thick, Groucho Marx eyebrows bouncing all over the place. ‘Whoa, Colin,’ I wanted to say, ‘rein it in a little.’ Gleeson is the one to watch here. Gleeson’s performance may even be a masterclass in reining it in; just a gaze and it’s all there: his wounded dignity, his resigned self-disgust and his fascination with the possibility of redemption, at least for Ray, who is young enough to start over. They stay in a hotel run by a pregnant woman, who may be the only decent person in the whole film, and the only person they are properly decent to. Pregnancy: new life, new beginnings. Respect.
Anyway, as they await instructions from Harry everything Ken and Ray encounter in Bruges is put up as fair comedic game. These range from targets you seriously can’t miss, like waddling fat American tourists, through to touchier subjects like child abuse, gays (‘stop crying, you big gay baby’) and the American dwarf in town to shoot a Eurotrash pastiche of Don’t Look Now (‘…or is it an hommage?’). When this works well it works very well — personally, I love a midget joke almost as much as I love heritage movies — but sometimes it is just noxious. When a coked-up dwarf starts ranting about race, I don’t know about you, but I tend to turn off. The film climaxes when Harry (Ralph Fiennes, possibly after a spell at The Vinnie Jones School of Unfeeling Bastards) rides into town for the final shoot-out. This isn’t pretty.
Although there is nothing particularly new about this film or its concerns — sin and redemption — the dialogue between Ray and Ken is, often, not just spot-on, but also wonderfully melodic. (Alas, it’s impossible to quote, as it relies so much on rhythm and repetition.) It is also, somehow, so blissfully constructed that you get Ray and Ken without the need for any clumsy back stories at all. It’s just all the violence that did me in. Indeed, if you see Tarantino, you might even want to give him a Chinese burn but whatever you do, don’t slice off the top of his skull as if it were a soft-boiled egg. That would be so playing into his hands, too.