'In Bruges' shifts from silly to sobering

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2008

If there is a Purgatory, it probably looks a bit like Belgium: quaint, European, picturesque and achingly dull on the surface - Bruges, perhaps.

Courtesy Of Blueprint Pictures
Courtesy Of Blueprint Pictures

That's the wickedly twisted premise holding together Martin McDonagh's deliciously dangerous and corrosively funny "In Bruges." This dark comedy shifts effortlessly between silly and sobering, and it finally gives Colin Farrell the chance to be as funny as we've long suspected he could be.

"The most well-preserved medieval town in the whole of Belgium" is hardly the ideal spot for a couple of hit-men to hide out after a botched job. But here they are, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), lying low, waiting for a call from hair-trigger Harry, their profane and obscenely violent boss, the one who orders hits.

"Rubbish" is the cleanest word Ray can come up with to describe a town he'd rather compare to a toilet.

The scenery? "Rubbish."

The churches, the canals? "Rubbish."

The people? "Rubbish."

Ray is Mr. Short Attention Span, the one instantly bored with being stuck in a provincial tourist trap. Ken would rather just go with it, taking the boat tour, visiting the famous church where a crusader knight brought back what's been marketed as "the blood of Jesus" from the Middle East a thousand years ago.

They see the sights. And bicker.

They hit the pubs. And bicker.

They sit by the hotel phone. And bicker.

It's not until they stumble across a movie being filmed there that things turn interesting enough to suit the younger man.

"It's a movie about a midget!" Ray boorishly declares, putting his foot in it for the 744th time. Actually, it's a "Bosch-ian nightmare," the dwarf leading man (Jordan Prentice, hilarious) pretentiously explains. Ray spies a fetching girl on the crew (Clemence Poesy), parties with the dwarf, some cocaine and a couple of hookers and finds himself warming to Bruges.

Well, except for those obese, loud American tourists.

Playwright-turned-filmmaker McDonagh is the Anglo-Irish David Mamet, a writer whose work reveals a talent for intricate plotting, a delight in being playful with the language and a brutal willingness to show violence at its ugliest.

In "In Bruges" (it's pronounced Broozh), McDonagh's characters make offhanded cracks about those American tourists, Belgium and the murder-for-hire cliche. McDonagh's sense of fun with the spoken word plays out in scenes with an underworld gun dealer, who goes on and on about "alcoves," when Ken would prefer he say it plainer - "nooks and crannies." In a later scene, that dealer asks about "dum dum" bullets in a way that will have you on the floor.

The hit men's put-downs are laced with profanity and wicked wit.

"Don't come over all Gandhi on me."

What's more, McDonagh knows how to spring surprises on the audience, none of which I'll give away here. Dark, guilt-ridden flashbacks to "the hit," the identify of Harry (heard on the phone, not seen until the third act) and a blood-and-brain spattered finale bring this clockwork killing machine to its climax in a way that's touching, funny and cruelly apt.

And contrary to every word out of Ray's mouth about the place, this under-filmed city, a Flemish punch-line just north of France, comes off as gray, brooding and lovely on screen.

Perhaps that's a bigger metaphor than the Purgatory one, McDonagh suggests. There are worse things than taking the time to sort out the mess of your life in Bruges.

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