When I first heard about Martin McDonagh’s 2008 film In Bruges, my first response was “where the hell is Bruges?” Then, the last line of narration by Ray (Colin Farrell) before the movie begins in earnest says simply, as though to answer the unspoken question, “It’s in Belgium.” It was at that moment that I suspected I was going to love this movie, and I was right.
That opening narration tells you everything you need to know for the purpose of this review: Ray is a gang hitman who did a job and was subsequently asked to hole up in Bruges for two days with his partner Kent (Brendan Gleeson). There are some other details, but those are better left unspoiled: this is one of the few crime thrillers in this day and age which can take a savvy viewer by surprise.
When you look back on In Bruges, most of its major beats are the sort of things you’d expect if you watch a lot of movies about gangs and/or hit men. However the movie retains tension and the element of surprise while you’re watching it, in part because McDonagh’s script is so aware of the expectations of the typical audience member. Right from the beginning with the line “It’s in Belgium,” this is a film which will sense what you’re thinking and respond to it, usually with comedy.
More than that, the script finds so many entertaining and unexpected ways to circle back on itself. Almost every conversation that Ray and Kent have gets called back to at some point later on, usually for comedy but sometimes for surprisingly powerful dramatic beats. There is a slight problem there – one line so blatantly telegraphs the way that the film will end that I had to stifle a groan when I heard it – but on the whole the movie is much better for McDonagh’s precise language.
McDonagh also enjoys playing upon the audience’s habit of sympathizing with the gangster characters in these sort of films. Ray is a profane, prejudiced misanthrope who shouldn’t be anywhere near a beautiful tourist trap like Bruges; not always an easy character to like. But we do like him, and McDonagh plays upon that by introducing the idea that Bruges is standing in for the biblical Purgatory. Eventually Ray may be damned or he may be forgiven, but for these 106 minutes he’s stuck in between, as surely as he feels stuck with Kent on excursions to boring museums and chapels.
Gleeson is good, and Ralph Fiennes is a lot of fun as the thugs’ boss, but Farrell is the real discovery here. Just prior to this film it looked like his career was in trouble; he had just made the dire bombs Miami Vice and Alexander, and his indie efforts like Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream and Terrence Malick’s The New World did not get seen. McDonagh puts him on full display, getting every emotion possible out of Farrell over the course of the film. A man trapped in Purgatory is not a one-note character; he’s going to swing between believing he’s bound for hell and hoping he can get out of it to the good. Movies like this are why Farrell still gets chances at popcorn films like the Total Recall remake: if he can make a role this tough look this easy, blockbuster acting should be a piece of cake.
Above all, In Bruges should be seen simply to be enjoyed. It’s not often that you see a movie which is so skilled with language that it almost seems to be inventing a language of its own. It’s not so often that you’ll say of a movie, “I loved the part with the racist dwarf.” It’s not often that you’ll see a perfect Colin Farrell performance. It’s not often that you’ll like a movie as much as I liked this one.
Reviewed by Mark Young