Running Time 107 minutes
Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes
Noted playwright Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, from his own screenplay, is set and literally immersed in the well-preserved medieval Belgian city described as the “Venice of the North,” a title once held by Dresden before it was virtually obliterated by Allied bombers in World War II. Over the years, Bruges has become a great tourist attraction, though Mr. McDonagh and his resourceful cinematographer, Eigil Bryld, have rendered it in more sinister terms as the misty, ghostly background for a gothic gangster tale full of unbridled violence, and yet graced with a perversely soulful spirituality in the exposed feelings of its three major characters, killers all.
Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are two Irish hit men who have been dispatched by their London boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to take a few weeks’ holiday in Bruges just before Christmas. We learn later that Ray has shot a priest in his confessional booth on a contract from Harry, but has accidentally also slain an altar boy, which was not in Harry’s contract. These murders, like all the violence, are rendered very vividly.
Ray has become suicidally inclined over his killing of the altar boy, and Ken has to spend much of his time in Bruges trying to comfort and reassure Ray that all is well and accidents will happen. Ray refuses to be consoled, and he complains that he can’t wait to get back to London. By contrast, Ken is transformed by the city, and pushes Ray to explore and enjoy its rich history and culture on display everywhere they turn. Then, on a call to Ken from Harry, who insists that Ray not be present for the call, Harry reveals his purpose in sending the two men to Bruges. Ken is to dispose of Ray for mishandling the priest assignment, but not before Ray has had the dreamlike experience of discovering Bruges as Harry himself had done many years before. Such tender whimsy in the midst of callous ruthlessness is typical of the film as a whole.
What happens next is unusually convoluted, and I’d better not tell you in advance. As the homicidally and suicidally tangled narrative unfolds, Ray has time to discover a true and lasting love in the arms of a Dutch prostitute, Chloë (Clémence Poésy), who hangs around with a dwarf director named Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), who is making an art film on a Hieronymus Bosch-like set. In the course of consummating his courtship of Chloë, Ray savagely beats up a “Canadian Guy” in a restaurant for his loudly and profanely complaining about Chloë’s smoking, and ends up partially blinding Chloë’s jealous skinhead procurer, Eirik (Jérémy Renier).
The language Ray, Ken and Harry unload is unusually obscene in its casualness and instinctiveness. These are characters without civilized limits on their behavior, and their obscenities express their anarchic impulses, which makes their climactic submission to the morbid spirituality of Bruges all the more overwhelming. Ultimately, the plot contortions are less important than the film’s complex tone, which impels the three main characters to release all the demons of guilt and shame from their tortured souls, on a blood-soaked pavement in front of a holy bell tower.
In Bruges is not entertainment for the faint-hearted and mindlessly censorious, and in this particularly chaotic period, it seems right in tune with the times. It goes almost without saying that the acting of the three leads, and that of their colleagues, is, in a word, splendid.
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