FILM REVIEW: In Bruges (2008)

In Bruges (UK, 2008)
Directed by Martin McDonagh

Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clemence Poesy

There have been a number of British gangster films in the last ten years which have re-approached well-worn crime thriller stories through distinctive dialogue, full-on violence and black humour. At its height this wave produced Gangster No. 1 and Sexy Beast, featuring barnstorming central performances by Malcolm McDowell and Ben Kingsley as near-mythical incarnations of evil. And while In Bruges never quite matches up to either of these, there is plenty in the way of humour and invention to render it thoroughly enjoyable.In Bruges is the debut film of playwright Martin McDonagh, most famous for his Leenane trilogy of plays - The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West. All three plays revolve around brutal acts of murder in which the death in question has left deep emotional scars on the perpetrators: in the case of The Lonesome West, it has caused the two brothers to divide the house precisely in two, with each brother owning what is on one side of a line.What connects all McDonagh's work is a rich streak of black, absurdist humour, which walks the same tightrope as Samuel Beckett or in some cases Spike Milligan between the utterly ridiculous and the drolly melancholic. The extremities of the characters in In Bruges are not simply a ploy on McDonagh's part to make a stock plot seem distinctive. They are there to deepen the archetypes and bring out more deeper, existential elements in the story and the characters, using banality to introduce depth.In Bruges begins with the same old story of a hitman (or hitmen in this case) hiding out in a foreign town after completing a job. Both men are faced with the prospect of being there for an undetermined amount of time, with nothing to do except spend their money and wait for instructions. Ken (Brendan Gleeson), the elder of the two, wants to take in the sights and wait patiently to move on, while Ray (an on-form Colin Farrell) is content to confine his sight-seeing to the bottoms of beer glasses.As with The American, Anton Corbijn's recent genre exercise, the characters in In Bruges carry guilt from a past mistake - in this case the death of a child during the assassination of a Catholic priest. Whole sections of the film tip their hat knowingly to Don't Look Now - so knowingly that Clemence Poesy feels the need to mention it on the set of the film-within-a-film. Just as Donald Sutherland keeps seeing images of a girl in red around Venice, and becomes convinced that he is seeing his daughter, so Ray's encounters with the dwarf actor are made all the more awkward by his memories of what went wrong.There are also strong connections with Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara's striking depiction of Catholic guilt and redemption. Like Harvey Keitel's character, Ken and Ray are struggling with the ins and outs of judgement and redemption, struggling to come to terms with their purpose and meaning as they stare increasingly into the abyss. There are conversations about purgatory, and the film-within-a-film refers to Hieronymus Bosch, a 15th-century painter famous for his depictions of hell.Within this context, Bruges becomes the purgatory into which our characters have landed and whose attitude reflects their ultimate ability or willingness to escape. Ray feels immense guilt for what happened to the child, but this guilt is matched by a desire to atone and escape. His final words, as he is loaded into the ambulance and passes out, see him leaving purgatory, content with death over remaining there even if death leads to damnation. Ken, on the other hand, is more resigned to his fate and is less willing to put up a fight when Harry's angel of death arrives. Having killed many more men than Ray, he knows that he will never see heaven. Although he attempts to help Ray both in life and death, he ultimately allows death to find him and puts up very little resistance.

But by far and away, the biggest debt of In Bruges is to Harold Pinter, specifically The Dumb Waiter from which most of the premise is taken. It shares the central idea of two hitmen who spend most of their time talking and arguing about things which seem utterly irrelevant but are in fact nothing of the sort. And the final twist is the same, although this is revealed a lot earlier than in Pinter's script. The only massive departure, in terms of character at least, comes in the role of Harry, played with typical venom by Ralph Fiennes. Dumb is the last word you would use to describe his character, whose every word feels like an acidic curse even when he isn't swearing his mouth off.Because the genre ingredients are so familiar and knowingly played, there are two traps into which In Bruges could easily fall. The first is descending into total caricature, along the lines of Guy Ritchie's early efforts: the language and gestures become so ridiculous that all sense of believability is lost. Although Harry is particularly outrageous in his behaviour, the film stays just the right side of caricature, playing up the absurd elements while using the language and violence to keep us feeling threatened even as we laugh ourselves silly. A typical example of this would be Fiennes' first appearance, when he smashes his office phone to pieces in frustration. It's very funny to see a grown man concentrate his rage on something so small so repeatedly, but even as we laugh we realise that he is capable of doing the same thing to something more fleshy, with horrible consequences.The second, more common trap is that the ordinary nature of the story acts as a lead weight on the character development: in other words, the story is too thin or straightforward either to allow extended character development, or to give any reason for such a thing to occur. While In Bruges doesn't completely fall into this trap, its story is disappointingly simple once all the language, violence and pondering has been stripped away.

Because of its clear resemblance to Pinter's work, one could argue that this criticism should not be levelled against McDonagh but Pinter himself. Pinter was part of a theatrical tradition started by Beckett in which characters existed and acted regardless of or in absence of any story - Beckett's later plays often occur well after the action has taken place, and said action is only referred to in passing. But this paucity of actual plot has not prevented some of Pinter's other works from translating successfully to the screen, most notably The Birthday Party and Betrayal.In Bruges is caught between a rock and a hard place in its relationship to genre. On the one hand, the touchstones to previous crime thrillers are so clear that it struggles to escape from convention when it really needs to: we know more or less where it is going even before Harry arrives, and so its scope for exploring things on a profoundly existential level is limited. On the other hand, when it does manage to elevate itself above convention, there is not enough narrative drive in the characters to prevent their conversations from going around in circles. As The Bed-Sitting Room proved, it is difficult to put work in Beckett's vein on screen without it feeling lacking in narrative, something which is perhaps less of a problem on stage.While this aspect of In Bruges remains frustrating, the film is still thoroughly entertaining thanks to the quality of its cast. Fiennes is the highlight, with Harry being clearly modelled on the work of Louis Mellis and David Scinto: in his relentlessness and constant anger, he could pass for a cousin of Don Logan. That said, his performance wouldn't work without someone more understated to counterpoint him, and Farrell achieves that masterfully. Having drifted in his career between total fluff (Alexander) and pretentious waffle (The New World), he gets the balance spot on to deliver a performance of vulnerability and sympathy. Gleeson anchors things in another fine performance, and Clemence Poesy is every bit as sweet and charming here as she was in Philip Ridley's Heartless.In Bruges is an interesting, entertaining and often hilarious take on a well-worn story and subject area. It is ultimately a little too generic for its own good, with McDonagh wrestling with the self-imposed confinements of genre in an effort to combine existentialism and narrative. The result is a partial success which makes for great late-night viewing, and while not up there with Gangster No. 1 or Sexy Beast, it comes through with most of the goods and hints at better things to come for its director.

Verdict: Overly generic but highly entertaining


Jasmine said...

This is a great review!

Daniel Mumby said...

Thank you Jasmine :)

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