In Bruges, the first film by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, depicts the town of Bruges as existing somewhere between heaven and hell with its lovely gingerbread-type architecture and constant catering to Western tourists. Despite the fine acting and often hilarious dialogue, the movie comes across as a slightly mixed bag, with the ending being so bloody that it sort of renders the genuinely touching first two-thirds of the film a bit moot in a hail of bullets.
If one is going to put a city in the title of a film, that city should come across as a character on its own. However, my ignorance of Bruges wasn’t remedied much at all as McDonagh presents the Belgian town as nowhere place, not genuinely unique at all but merely some sort of European tourist trap that could probably be anywhere. Perhaps across the pond jokes about Bruges abound and situating the characters within the town isn’t needed, but for Americans with little concept of the city, much less Belgium itself, such an effort is sorely missed.
The plot concerns two Irish hit men, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Collin Farrell), who have been sent by their unscrupulous yet principled boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out in Bruges following a job in London gone wrong; Ray accidentally killed a young boy along with the mark. Ken is happy to be there and delights in taking boat rides on the canals and visiting churches that hold sacred Christian hallows. Ray on the other hand, is tortured by the events of the murder and hates Bruges on sight, calling it a shit-hole, a hellhole, any sort of pejorative name that crosses his mind. Since it's Christmas and everything else is booked, the pair is forced to share a room at a hotel. Harry has instructed them to stay put during the evenings to await his phone call. Ray is fidgety and wants to go out, drown his sorrows in Belgian beer. He doesn’t know why Harry has sent them to Bruges as they could easily have hid out in some backwater British town. Ken ventures that perhaps Harry has sent them to Bruges in order to commit another murder. When Harry’s phone call finally comes, Ken is proved right, but not in the way he expects.
The acting is top notch. I haven’t seen Farrell in too many other things, but he strikes me as an actor who quite possibly is too good-looking to play the character parts he is best suited for. He plays Ray with a compassion that is quite stirring, communicating his anguish often with just a wrinkle in the forehead or a twitch of the eyebrows. Gleeson too plays a humane hitman, and the relationship between the two is an affectionate father/son one even with all the verbal sparring. Ken’s inner torment is every bit as harrowing as Ray’s, but he has found a way to deal with it. Despite their likeability, McDonagh is careful to not turn them into heroes and constantly reminds the audience that the two are killers for money. While I was reminded of Guy Ritchie’s early films, especially when Fiennes is onscreen, this is a more mature and nuanced work.
While the ending is one that just about anyone could have predicted, especially with the way McDonagh shows close-ups of props to highlight their future significance, the way that ending is reached was a bit surprising. But with all the moaning, even at the end, with having to be in ‘fucking Bruges,’ one still feels it could have just been anyplace. Like the plays of McDonagh I have been fortunate enough to read, this is a good film that just falls short of being very good. He seems to open more doors that he cares to walk through, something that hopefully won’t continue as he matures.