Today I'm attempting to review another movie recommendation from my friend over on twitter, but there's a problem. Since originally viewing this a couple months ago I've rewatched it over two dozen times and still can't identify exactly what I love about it. I've got all the points I want to make blocked out on four sheets of paper next to me and I'm not comfortable picking any one of them and saying "this is what's truly great about In Bruges." Maybe I'm a bad reviewer, but there's just something magical about this movie. It's certainly not for everyone—I've shown it to a fair few people and while some of them immediately loved it as much as I did, others weren't so impressed—but I'd encourage anyone curious to give it a try. Honestly the worst case scenario is maybe it doesn't join the ranks of your favorite movies because this is certainly no Transformers 4.
So anyway here's a quick plot synopsis and a stylized and extrapolated compilation of reasons the film is great.
In Bruges is a dark comedy and Martin McDonagh's feature film debut (as both writer and director). Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are two assassins laying low in Bruges awaiting orders from mob boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes). While Ken is more than happy to patiently go sightseeing, Ray is bored by the experience and seeks refuge in drugs and women. But there's something more to Ray, something is bothering him, and eventually we find out that he accidentally killed a little boy and Harry sent him to Bruges to give him one last joyful memory before he has him killed. Ken learns it's his job to do the deed, and wonderfully tragicomic shenanigans ensue.
The first thing that really makes this movie is the acting. Without the right cast it can be very tricky if not impossible to get dark comedy to work. That said, McDonagh really couldn't have picked a better protagonist than Colin Farrell to play the regretful but childish failed assassin Ray. His facial expressions are so perfect you can't help but fall in love with him. As a character, his juvenile tendencies are balanced by his serious uncertainty as to the future and his mature understanding of the dire situation. Brendan Gleeson functions wonderfully as the foil to Ray in the form of the cultured father-figure Ken, and then develops emotional depth of his own. Finally, casting Ralph Fiennes as the antagonist might seem to risk wasting his talent, but McDonagh gives him a chance to be human (as well as giving him a killer entrance and some of the film's best lines). The supporting cast is great too (with Eric Godon's confusion over the alcoves as Yuri and Jordan Prentice's racist rant as Jimmy) but it's this triad that really carries the movie.
Another reason this movie really works is what I refer to here in my notes as tension control. Dark comedy can be difficult because if you don't balance the tragic with the comic the movie will come out as a jumbled mush. In Bruges does a great job of starting strong on the comedy side, balancing the tragedy as it comes, and then ending in the most fantastic (literally and figuratively) way imaginable. This expert tight-rope walk continues throughout the movie, but for the sake of spoilers I'll choose an example near the beginning. One of the first tragic moments after about 25 minutes of straight comedy occurs when we learn that Ray accidentally killed a little boy and he reveals his discomfort and uncertainty to Ken. After some serious character development and exposition of the film's major themes (don't worry I'm getting there) we return to the comedy of Ray going on a date and Harry calling to check in. These aren't empty scenes though: they continue to develop both the characters and the movie itself. There is no excess fat to be trimmed.
The only thing I'm not totally in love with is In Bruges's proclivity for profanity. There's a whole lot of a swearing in this movie, and not just the "nice" or "normal" curses but all of them. The only thing I can attribute this to is the film's frankness. This is my friend's idea and not really mine, but I agree that the movie has a general feeling that, despite the unusual situation, this is how real human beings would react to and deal with being placed in circumstances like these.
So before I move on to my actual readings of the film (and this last point will of course conveniently tie into the first reading), I'd just like to say that the cinematography is beautiful. While this might not be completely the camera operator's doing since Bruges itself is rather pretty, Eigil Bryld (now working as the main DP on House of Cards) does a great job of highlighting Bruges's more scenic aspects. There's a great scene where Ray wants to get out of the hotel and disingenuously suggests that the buildings probably look cool lit up at night. It's supposed to be a joke since Ray hates sightseeing, but the night shots that follow (and with which the film opens) really are gorgeous. Bryld's cinematography makes Bruges into a dreamlike fairytale place, which feeds into one of the two possible readings of the film that I like (beyond of course the "normal" reading that these are simply people and this is their life).
In Bruges is very aware of itself and the fact that it is (telling) a story. It displays strong metatheatrical themes which tie into the broader question of storytelling and fairytales. First we get multiple scene transitions directly from Ken's appreciation of Bruges and its scenery to the scenery itself, and these are much more than pure eyeline matches. We're not just looking at what Ken's looking at, we're looking at both Bruges itself and Bruges as dreamlike fairytale location for a story about stories. Ken and Harry also both repeatedly refer to Bruges as a fairytale place. There are also references to the film/story's structure, my favorite being when Harry refuses to put down his gun and walk away on the grounds that "this is the shootout." Finally, there is the film-within-a-film with Jimmy, the actor acting as an actor. This is the most crucial element for me because it connects to the second reading in the final moments of the film when Ray considers heaven, hell and purgatory in the company of actors dressed as characters from the Last Judgment painting viewed earlier by Ray and Ken. In Bruges is quite possibly McDonagh's dream of what a contemporary or "postmodern" fairytale looks like.
Finally, here is my absolute favorite aspect of this film and what comes closest to The Reason I Watched In Bruges Every Night For A Week: maybe In Bruges is Ray's version of the afterlife. Somewhat early in the film Ray and Ken visit a museum with the aforementioned Last Judgment painting and Ray describes purgatory: "Purgatory's kind of like the inbetweeny one. You weren't really shit, but you weren't all that great, either. Like Tottenham. Do you believe in all that stuff?" While this is obviously a rather vague description, it fits Ray perfectly. He killed a child, but—as Ken defends him on multiple occasions, and as Harry himself admits—he's not a bad guy, and (unlike Harry) he has the capacity to change, the ability to do good. The final scene in the film seems to directly confirm this reading. As Ray attempts to escape Harry, he stumbles onto the set of the film-within-a-film and the actors are all dressed up as characters from the Last Judgment painting. Ray then delivers the final monologue:
There's a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that'll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I'd go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison... death... didn't matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn't be in fuckin' Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that's what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin' Bruges. And I really really hoped I wouldn't die. I really really hoped I wouldn't die.