Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hitmen on Holiday: In Bruges (2008)

Writer-Director Martin McDonagh’s pitch-perfect film debut opens with two hitmen arriving in the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges. The two are fresh off a botched job back in the U.K., and have been sent by their boss to hide out in the medieval city of cathedrals and canals to await his instructions. Veteran Ken (Brendan Gleeson) is immediately taken by the city, and jumps at the chance to play tourist, while hotheaded rookie Ray (Colin Farrell) declares Bruges a “shithole” on arrival and sees no point in doing anything other than drink in the pub. After all, he says, history is “all just a load of stuff that’s already happened.”

On its surface, In Bruges is a story we’ve seen many times before. Even the personal demons of the characters, like Ray’s grief over having accidentally killed a child on their last job or Ken’s calm detachment from his occupation are at this point old plot devices (the killer with emotional issues is one of the most ubiquitous tropes in recent cinema--see You Kill Me, The Matador, Analyze This, The Sopranos and the entire action movie catalog of Nicholas Cage). But McDonagh, best known as a playwright, is a gifted writer of dialogue, and manages to mine Ray and Ken’s mundane and often silly conversations for hidden and surprising depths. His devil-may-care attitude toward plotting is a bit less elegant-- to call the film overplotted is an understatement--but it’s also a big part of what ultimately makes In Bruges so funny and sets it apart from others like it. So after we’ve seen Ray punch a woman, snort coke with a dwarf and two Dutch hookers, and insult just about every social demographic to its face, we are able to let go of any preconceived notions and resign ourselves to going where McDonagh takes us.

Fortunately, the road he takes is more interesting than the genre usually allows, and In Bruges offers some really delightful surprises in its second half. Towering over all the rest is the introduction of Ralph Fiennes as Ken and Rays’s boss Harry, a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Brit that is the most simultaneously likable and loathsome screen villain that I’ve encountered in some time. Fiennes seems to be channeling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast here, with his steely-eyed glare and stiff posture (not to mention the string of curses he lets fly ever time he opens his mouth), but he makes the character his own. While Kingsley’s Don Logan was a single-minded, unstoppable force of nature, Fiennes brings some oddly human tics to his performance, playing Harry as the kind of old-school hood that acts on “a point of honor.” He's a proper British thug, and even when he’s shooting a man or overflowing with anger, he’s quick to insist it’s nothing personal.

While Fiennes manages to steal a few scenes near the end of the film, including a shootout with Farrell that’s one of the funniest action scenes in recent memory, the majority of drama in the film is placed firmly on the shoulders of Farrell and Gleeson, and thankfully so. They make a great odd couple, eventually falling into a father-son dynamic that makes for some great humor at the same time that it's oddly touching (see the way Gleeson looks at Farrell and gives him advice before the other leaves for a date). Gleeson’s an old pro, and you expect him to be great (and he is), so it's Farrell's performance that comes as the big surprise here. He seems born to play the role of Ray, and he delivers his most petulant and inappropriate lines (“Look! They’re filming midgets!”) with a childish glee that is infectious and completely believable. Still, where Farrell and Gleeson really prove themselves is not in the film’s lighter moments, but when the mood gets serious. When the two discuss their belief in God or Ray’s anguish at having killed a little boy, it’s genuinely touching. McDonagh’s not just giving the audience half-hearted emotional filler to kill time between the one-liners, but genuine human drama, and this credibility only makes the jokes all the more funny when they do come.

Despite the stellar performances, not enough praise can be showered on McDonagh's script, which is the most tightly constructed of the year. His writing and the film as a whole have already earned him comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, but this parallel couldn’t be further off the mark. When Tarantino’s hitmen in Pulp Fiction indulge in inane chatter about TV pilots or what they call a Quarter Pounder in Amsterdam, it really is inane. McDonagh, on the other hand, imbues every aspect of In Bruges with meaning. Every line, every character, every action ultimately plays a part in the overarching narrative to an almost absurd degree. McDonagh has written the hell out of this movie, so to speak, and the fact that the characters and the drama are still so believable in such an overloaded script is only all the more to his credit.

I’d be remiss here not to mention the fourth key character in the story-- the city of Bruges itself. Love it or hate, this film will still succeed in making you want to go visit this truly remarkable city, which prior to seeing the film I had only heard of in passing. McDonagh makes a joke out of Harry repeatedly referring to it as “a fairy tale place,” but it’s an apt description of the city’s cobblestone streets and canals, which have led to its being dubbed “the Venice of the North”. The fact that McDonagh decided to stage such a subversive, joyously offensive film in this city that seems so staid and proper is just yet another of the many strokes of brilliance on display here.

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