by HELEN GEIB
In Bruges follows the comic and sometimes violent misadventures of Ray (Colin Farrell), a hapless aspiring hitman, and his much more capable mentor in the business, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), over a long weekend in Bruges, Belgium. This is a very, very funny movie, but its true genius is its seemingly inexhaustible capacity for reconciling contradictory elements. It is in turns broadly comic and delicately dramatic, vulgar and subtle, grotesque and tender.
Ray and Ken are in Bruges on the orders of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a shadowy underworld figure who goes way back with Ken and is his sometime employer. Harry sent them there ostensibly to lie low after a botched job in London. The job was Ray’s first time pulling the trigger, and he mistakenly killed a bystander as well as his target. The unintended killing set the plot in motion and as the film proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that its repercussions are driving the story.
At Ken’s insistence, he and Ray spend a lot of time touring Bruges. Ken is enchanted by the city, a beautifully preserved medieval walled town. Ray would rather be in a pub, and preferably a pub anywhere but in Bruges. He hates the place, a feeling that persists even after he meets a beautiful local woman who likes him. Other characters that cross his path do even less to endear him to the place, however much they contribute to the general comic mayhem and the audience’s pleasure.
Ray may liken Bruges to Hell (and frequently does), but it is in fact his Purgatory. Lurking just under the comic surface is a compelling and touching story of repentance and, perhaps, salvation. The drama of Ray’s character arc is beautifully integrated into the comedy right through to the final scene. It never feels forced or like an intrusive overlay onto the story, as it could easily have done in a less skillfully conceived and executed film.
The audience is more likely to agree with Ken than with Ray about the merits of Bruges as a destination for a weekend getaway. As the camera glides over streetscapes, outdoor cafes, canals (the source of the city’s appellation “the Venice of the North”), pubs, churches, town squares, and museums, I imagine many viewers will be mentally adding Bruges to the list of places they want to go someday.
Delightful and interesting as the city is, the real star of the show is unquestionably Farrell. His is an absolutely fantastic comic/dramatic performance. Gleeson is also excellent; his Ken acts as a fine straight man to Farrell’s Ray in their comedy routines, and he is equally adept at drawing out the pathos of his own character’s story. Fiennes and the rest of the supporting cast deliver distinctive character turns that ably contribute to the comedy.
In Bruges was written and directed by Martin McDonagh. A playwright, this is his second feature film. It is well directed and exceptionally well written. Let’s hope we see more films from McDonagh, especially as a writer.