Tuesday, 19 January 2010

In Bruges (2008)

Country: UK/USA

There has always been a vein of existential pondering in gangster films and violent thrillers, and generally it comes across as forced and self-conscious. As if one needs a discussion of metaphysics in order to offset the brutal violence. Few films give their characters satisfactory arcs of development because so much attention must be placed on action and spectacle. If there is one thing that writer/director Martin McDonagh achieves within the structure of In Bruges it is to bring an unusual amount of patience and deliberation to it. This is a very well thought out, literate and at times poetic film with some of the best dialogue exchanges you are ever likely to hear in cinema. In Bruges is all about character, almost entirely devoid of action (except for the final shoot out) the film is propelled along by its wit and an attention to detail and character motivation increasingly rare in commercial filmmaking. No doubt the film will be embraced by art cinema aficionados but the film retains enough generic signifiers to ensure lasting and popular appeal.

Ray (Colin Farrel) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are hit men who have been forced into temporary exile in the Belgian town of Bruges by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes). Farrel brings a haunted quality to the wisecracking Ray as he mooches dispiritedly around a town that he has total contempt for. The younger of the two would rather be in Dublin where the action is, but Ken is happy to take in the mediaeval sights of Belgium’s most historical tourist spot. Fortunately McDonagh avoids giving his film a touristy look and instead shoots the cobbled streets, churches, canals and bars with a freshness that turns Bruges into a space that offers spiritual enlightenment. The increasingly spiritual tone of the film moves into overdrive when we discover that Ray has accidentally shot and killed a child and is desperately seeking atonement for this transgression. Notably the film also slips into the avenue of the surreal as well, when Ray encounters a pretentious dwarf actor, and a girl who sells narcotics to the film crew. All the while McDonagh makes Bruges increasingly unreal as it becomes a wintry snow flecked landscape of the mind. At this point the film appears to be meandering towards a Ray epiphany, but instead McDonagh throws in a beautiful curve ball when Ken is ordered by Harry to eliminate Ray for the murder of the child.

Despite this twist In Bruges cannot help but retain its blackly comedic nature as Ken about to shoot Ray unwittingly saves him from committing suicide. Ken is also a man with a past, a philosophical widower who has taken the impetuous Ray under his wing. The film shifts tone and territory when Harry shows up to do the job that Ken refuses to do. Harry is a total caricature, clichéd and loud, violent and mindlessly aggressive but with a Samurai’s code of ethics. Fiennes is clearly having great fun playing to this type, and Harry makes a fascinating contrast with the other characters who have depth, feeling and humanity. Harry inadvertently becomes the most hilarious creation in the film and even when he is killing the sense of unreality still permeates every action. Harry is a devil, and Ken becomes a Christ like figure of martyrdom and self-sacrifice, his suicide offers Ray the chance to be absolved of his sins, but the films closure is uncertain offering us only the slightest possibility that Ken’s sacrifice was not in vain. Perfectly cast, beautifully shot, funny, politically incorrect, and uplifting, In Bruges is proof that mainstream commercial films can also be intelligent and thematically rewarding.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

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