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In Bruges has sickly charm

By: David Wester, found at One Movie a Week 07/29/2008
in brugesIn Bruges opened the Sundance Film Festival.

It's been nearly 14 years since Pulp Fiction re-popularized and re-mythologized the hitman for its generation, and through this time, cinema has seen more than its share of men (and sometimes, rarely, women) executing people for money.

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Anyone who was paying attention to such things can remember the tiring glut of mostly abhorrent, jokey crime dramas that followed in Pulp's wake, so much so that it often seemed that the film's legacy would be the forever tied to these lesser pictures. And, of course, in many ways that's true.

To this day, Pulp Fiction represents a change in filmic paradigm, but it paved the way for both its lesser imitators as well as those that exceeded it in quality. Without it, it's hard to imagine No Country for Old Men winning its well-deserved Best Picture Oscar, and it's even harder to imagine the existence of In Bruges, a wonderful film that unearths a surprising amount of truth and humanity from this genre (and should maybe win a statue of its own).

With a similar cynical, but humane tone that vacillates from wrenching drama to high comedy, it's a perfect counterpoint to Tarantino's opus: the crime film in thoughtful mid-life crisis compared to Pulp Fiction's adolescent swagger.

In Bruges has a sickly, diseased charm. The experience of watching it is not unlike those times when you lie awake, unable to sleep, contemplating all the harm you've done other people and feeling oppressed by the associated guilt (the film may lose those who don't experience such moments in their lives, but I contend that they're worse off).
In such dark, personal moments, one might be tempted to abandon everything by hopping on the next train out of town or even committing suicide, and this film looks those temptations square in the face and examines them through the good-natured, but confused lens of the following morning. All of its characters harbor life-draining, bottled-up secrets and regrets, but they get through their days with a dose of old-fashioned cynicsm, physical exertion, and mind-altering substances.

It focuses on two hitmen who are holing up, on instruction from their boss, in the small Belgian town of Bruges after the younger of the two (Colin Farrell) botched a hit. They're instructed to lie low and wait for instructions. The older hit man (a scream-to-the-rafters good Brendan Gleeson) is delighted to take the opportunity to sight-see, and he drags the indignant Ferrall to a variety of the town's historic destinations.

During these excursions, the father-son dynamic between the two men is perfectly played; Ferrall comes off as a pouty, incurious teen, more interested in drinking and hitting up the local women than Gleeson. The older hit man clearly understands where the younger man is coming from, but, feeling his years, is nevertheless interested in matters of a religious and historic nature and wishes to impart his young companion with the important lessons these things provide.

This good-natured, but contentious relationship between the two men is established efficiently by the actors and the script, and by itself, it's a marvel. They're so good, you could watch Gleeson and Farrell chat and bicker their way while grocery shopping for two hours and never feel less than entertained. But part of the thrill of the movie is in how writer-director Martin McDonagh pushes this relationship to the breaking point.

Farrell is torn by guilt, suicidal even, and desperately wants help or advice from Gleeson, but the older man has no answers for him. Gleeson carries his own pain around with him, but years have calloused him to the emotional complexities of his life as a hit man. And while Gleeson tries to convince Ferrall to stay alive while they wait for further instructions, it's suddenly clear thatIn Bruges is using its hitmen to tackle an exploration of the very meaning of life itself, using their high-stakes, hard-lived lives to ponder the question--to be, or not to be?

And while, like Hamlet, In Bruges doesn't come up with a definitive answer that we can all take home and apply to ourselves, it, like Hamlet, shows us how that it's hard, but worthwhile and important to arrive at an answer.

But, lest it seem that the movie is a moody, muddy work of tears and ruminations, it should be noted that In Bruges is a hysterically funny film. McDonagh has written some clever, rancid dialogue for his sleazy characters. From Ferrall's scathing condemnation of American tourists to the racist drivel spewed by a coked-up little person, the film pulls no punches. At times it seems like the movie's about to go off into shock-for-shock's sake offensive humor, but it's much more clever than that. Unlike, say, the worst episodes of South Park, the script holds the characters responsible for the inevitable consequences of their attitudes, and the bigger laughs in the film come from showing the ignorance behind their offensive gibberish.

But, even better, is the funniness of the McDonagh's plotting. There's a perfect, dark joke somewhere in the middle that also serves as a plot point, a botched suicide attempt that forces both men to confront a new wrinkle in their relationship and their own respective attitudes toward their lives and their work (I would love to go on about this moment, but I wouldn't dream of giving it away to anyone, not now, not 100 years from now, and, so, I remain coy). It's a moment of absolute genius, as confounding and contradictory (and thereby hilarious) as life itself.

If In Bruges has a flaw, it's only in its immaculate structure. The drama is nice, tidy, and economical, and, while these are all good things, it may be a bit too tidy, too pat. As the film nears its conclusion, it gathers up all of its loose threads and begins to tie them off, weaving all of them into the final beats of the story. It does this marvelously--everything that has happened in the film has some effect on the ending--but the machinery behind the scenes does start to groan and strain a bit to fit everything into the final location and the pacing slows as McDonagh moves all of his pieces to the appropriate positions on the board before kicking-off the finale.

It's interesting, though, that the plot of In Bruges is so tidy, while the emotional and philosphical ramifications for its characters are not. With its fractured narrative, spontaneous digressions, but tidy morality, exactly the opposite is true of Pulp Fiction, and this, to me, is a clue as to why I prefer one or the other depending on how I spent the previous night.

Would be a good double feature with: Pulp Fiction

A Breath of Fresh Air: Review from Sundance Film Festival , 23 January 2008
Author: John Owens L from Boston

For those who might not know the name, director Martin McDonagh is an Irish playwright who won the Oscar last year for his short film "Six Shooter" about a chance encounter on a train, and that film's star Brendan Gleeson has returned as Ken, one of two hit men sent to the medieval city of Bruges in Belgium along with his partner Ray (Colin Farrell) to rest and lay low after a hit gone horribly wrong. Ray is a miserable bastard who makes it clear he's not happy about being in Bruges, but Ken convinces him that their boss Harry has a job for them there, as well as allowing them a chance for some sightseeing, none of which improves Ray's mood. Things look up when he meets the beautiful local woman Chloe, played by French actress Clémence Poésy--you may remember her as Fleur Delacore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire--and scores himself a date, which also goes horribly wrong due to Ray shooting off his big mouth. From there things continue to go south as Ray and Ken get into all sorts of messes and meet strange characters, all of whom will play a part in the larger picture.

There aren't too many non-Belgian films set in Belgium, and Bruges is a beautiful but odd place to set an entire movie. You'll probably learn more about the place than you ever need to know as Ken narrates their sightseeing excursions with a few factoids about the place. The entire first act is driven by the chemistry between Farrell and Gleason as they deliver rapid-fire patter that reminds one of McDonagh's background as a playwright, but it makes them as immediately endearing as Vincent and Jules in "Pulp Fiction," allowing for an even bigger impact as things happen to them. Our first encounter with the boys' boss Harry is an expletive filled telegraph and an equally amusing phone conversation with Ken, making it obvious that this is a mobster cut from the same cloth as Ben Kingsley's Don Logan. Those who don't recognize the voice will be thrilled when they learn who plays Harry, because it's a pleasant surprise.

This is easily Colin Farrell's best role and performance in a long time, one that allows him to show a lot of range, not just as the big-mouthed prat we assume Ray to be, but also as a thoughtful man distraught about what happened in London. Having seen the error of his ways, he feels the need to make right, even if he hides it with a lot of complaining and arguments, and that carries over to Gleason's Ken, continuing his great run with McDonagh.

McDonagh has created a clever script that interweaves its small cast of characters into an intricate crime caper that mixes humor, violence and true heartfelt human emotions into a brilliant debut feature. Just when you think you know where things are going, McDonagh throws a sharp curve ball at you and then another, and another, and pretty soon, what started as a two-handed talkie has turned into a hold-your-breath action flick, when Harry turns up in Bruges to rectify some business that Ken has botched. Even so, it never loses what made the first half so charming and entertaining, because McDonagh's impressive dialogue remains at the forefront for the extended confrontation between Ken and Harry. The ending might be somewhat grim for some tastes going by the lightness of what's gone before, but the way everything is tied together makes it all worth it.

Anyone worried that Tarantino and Ritchie's best work might be behind them, can revel in the promise of McDonagh's take on the crime-comedy genre, as this talented filmmaker shows that "Six Shooter" was no fluke and this movie begins what's likely to be a long and promising film career. On top of that, if "In Bruges" doesn't end up being the funniest and most quotable movies of the year, then it should be very close



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