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Mediæval morality play

In Bruges   is a good place to be
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  December 16, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars


VIDEO: Peter Keough's review of In Bruges

In Bruges | Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh | with Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes | Focus Features | 107 minutes
It’s location, location, location for Martin McDonagh. The playwright-turned-filmmaker made his name tossing off perverse and hilarious black comedies set in the wild west of Ireland. Now he makes his feature-length film debut with a perverse and hilarious hit-men-in-hiding piece shot on location in “the most well-preserved mediæval city in Belgium.” Olivier Award–winning bad boy McDonagh has made no secret of regarding the theater as a stepping stone to film, and Tarantino rather than O’Casey as his god. He won a 2006 Oscar for the live-action short “Six Shooter,” and with In Bruges he proves that was no fluke. Wielding a camera as artfully as he does a poisonous pen, the author of the sinister The Pillowman, the violence-dripping The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and the mom-bashing The Beauty Queen of Leenane delivers a genre film that veers off the track into a consideration of justice, morality, and honor among worse than thieves. If the movie eventually jumps the rails, turning into a sick joke set in a Hieronymus Bosch theme park, its perverse and hilarious first two-thirds are terrific.

McDonagh’s theatrical admirers will have to get by the plot’s being ripped off from Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, but Tarantino groupies probably won’t care. And Bruges, very much a character in the film, has no part whatever in Pinter’s claustrophobic early one-act. Here, in the wake of a hit gone horribly wrong (and the midst of the Christmas season), professional killers Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) have been dispatched by boss Harry (a coolly pathological Ralph Fiennes) to the historic city to cool their heels and await further orders. Much of the initial dialogue concerns whether Bruges is or isn’t a “shithole,” with Gleeson’s older, burlier Ken captivated by its canals, cobblestones, and Gothic architecture and Farrell’s Ray, his eyebrows an inverted “V” of bored bewilderment, acting like a kid sentenced to a museum. The only thing that arouses his enthusiasm is stumbling onto a film set and with it a sly, sexy Belgian (Clémence Poésy) with whom he scores what will prove a cat-and-mouse, ultimately violent date, the aftermath of which involves a coke fest with a racist American dwarf actor (Jordan Prentice) and a couple of very tall whores.

Eventually further orders do materialize, and Pinter fans will not be surprised by what they are. They will, however, be taken aback by where the plot twists (not to mention the flashbacks) carry McDonagh’s apparently amoral characters and disarmed by the guilt-inducing humor of his profane, precisely crafted dialogue. McDonagh didn’t want to make a playwright’s movie — a couple of hapless criminals sitting around talking. No worry. He proves adept with the camera, fondly circling both the mediæval city, a thing of fairy tale by night, and his edgy, modern brutes of characters: killers, skinheads, vixen drug traffickers, and one baroque purveyor of weapons full of cryptic murder tips involving “alcoves.” And for a guy who never staged his own plays, the director proves similarly adroit at coaching — or at least picking — actors. Farrell’s stubble-faced countenance is like an open book, its pages riffling from sulk to bravado to despair. And Gleeson makes his weathered thug also something of a thoughtful connoisseur.

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