In Bruges is a 2008 black comedy, written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh. His feature debut, it centres on Irish hitmen Ken and Ray (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell respectively). After a bungled job, the pair have been ordered to go into hiding – until further notice – by their gangster boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) in the small Belgian city of Bruges.
Brilliantly inventive, expertly crafted and unrelentingly hilarious, the film is a breath of fresh air in a stuffy and clichéd genre. The trio of Fiennes (at his most menacing), Farrell (on his best form) and Gleeson (at his most teddy bear-like) is perfect. Not to mention Clémence Poésy at her coolest. They’re all at the top of their game, in particular Fiennes, who commits himself wholly and comes out the other side having provided us with one of his finest and most enjoyable performances.
McDonagh said that when he visited Bruges he was first blown away by its staggering beauty, but a few hours later and having seen everything worth seeing, he was monumentally bored. Ray and Ken brilliantly represent the two sides of that coin: Ray behaves like an overgrown petulant child whilst sightseeing with Ken (“throwing a fucking moody” in his words), even when presented with a vial supposedly containing Jesus’ actual blood. The only thing that piques his interest are a film set where “they’re filming something – they’re filming midgets!”, whereupon he meets Poésy’s Chloë, a local who deals drugs to film crews and robs tourists with an ex-boyfriend. Ken, on the other hand, adores the fairytale town, and just looking at it shows he isn’t wrong.
There’s more to this film than just this odd couple bumbling around Bruges though; McDonagh’s DNA as a playwright shines through in the masterfully constructed narrative. It’s full of slight details and encounters that seem innocuous at first, such as being refused the opportunity to offload a pocketful of change by an officious tourist attraction worker, which actually come to serve a purpose later on. The satisfaction is overwhelming as all these different strands blend together to create one gorgeous Belgian waffle of a film.
McDonagh’s stagecraft experience also stands out in terms of his character-building and the dialogue-rich script; the cast are all overwhelmingly human, each with distinct and lovingly crafted personalities, and the actors have plenty to get their teeth into with the dialogue. The conversation is natural, realistic, flows wonderfully and the men all swear like fishwives, but not gratuitously – it’s everyday swearing in the way normal people do. Well, maybe Harry swears a bit more than most…
They are also casually offensive towards various groups in their interactions (a favourite being Harry calling a minor character “a blind little gay boy”), however, you don’t get turned off the characters because of these comments as they don’t come across as malicious or prejudiced – the men just aren’t very PC (they are hitmen after all). In fact, Ray and Ken wholeheartedly disagree with a racist diatribe spouted by the coked-up dwarf actor Ray meets on the film set. It’s pure and unfiltered, straight from the heart of these slightly ignorant but ultimately decent killers with more on their minds than offending the couple at the next table. Anyway, it’s not like they don’t have principles.
Ray stands as the emotional core of the film, as it’s his error that leads to them laying low in Bruges, and without giving too much away, it’s something he’s deeply affected by. Yes, he’s a hired killer, but he’s still a human being, and the cock-up he committed pushes him to his limits. Farrell is heartbreaking when he bursts into tears at several points throughout the film, as his attempt to bury the struggle he’s going through slips for a minute and we see his anguish. If Ray is the emotional centre, Harry, surprisingly, is the moral. Despite his ruthless nature, he clearly has a strong set of moral principles that he adheres to strictly in his life, something that brings a strong element of humanity to what could easily have been an unrealistic caricature of an East End crime boss.
From a more explicitly filmmaking viewpoint, In Bruges is gorgeous to watch. Bruges being a stunningly beautiful city helps of course (as Ken cheerily points out to a positively comatose-with-boredom Ray, it’s “the most well preserved medieval city in the whole of Belgium”), but director of photography Eigil Bryld manages to expertly capture the feel of the city in each frame too, that combination of both cheeriness and eeriness that pervades such an old town at Christmastime. All in all, In Bruges is a perfectly formed little gem of a film. Touching, mad, hilarious and heartbreaking, it’s so easy to fall in love with this masterpiece, and you’ll regularly find yourself with an urge to revisit. It is a fairytale fuckin’ town after all.