Should professional hitmen be depicted as funny and lovable? Morally speaking, I don’t think so—but then, morals in movies, books, and TV shows are relative (as moralists frequently complain). Quentin Tarantino’s hitmen in Pulp Fiction were a hoot even as they blew away hapless victims, because the point was to juxtapose their goofy banter about Quarter Pounders with Cheese and their icy brutality, and because the film unfolded in a reflexive genre-movie universe that bore no resemblance to our own (at least before Pulp Fiction proved so influential). In the audaciously violent In Bruges, writer-director Martin McDonagh uses funny and lovable buddy hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) to explore more agonizing questions of sin and redemption, and the shifts in tone are hard, if not impossible, to reconcile. At the center of the film is the accidental killing of a small boy at prayer, and while McDonagh gives that act its full due (and then some), there’s a disconnect between so shattering a tragedy and the fundamentally bogus genre he’s working in. For In Bruges to click, McDonagh needed either to get more real or more fake.
He wouldn’t, of course: That’s not in his nature. In his blistering plays (among them The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Pillowman), the riotous banter deepens the horror and vice versa: The characters’ rage is so close to the surface that the mundane is always triggering the murderous. Matricide, patricide, suicide, the torture and murder of children—it’s grist for bitter laughs that never feel glib, as if McDonagh set out to disprove Walpole’s “The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” Like many of his Irish brethren, McDonagh can fall down laughing but hit the ground weeping.
In Bruges takes place, well, in Bruges, the medieval Belgian canal city and a queer setting for a hitman picture, which of course is the point. Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Gleeson) have been dispatched to Flanders by their furious Cockney boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), after a hit has gone wrong—catastrophically wrong. (“Get the fook out of London, you dumb fooks.”) While Ray wants to drink himself into oblivion in the pub (or “poob”), Ken insists on buying a guidebook and dragging him out to see the Gothic architecture—anything to stay busy while waiting for instructions from mad Harry. Ken grows increasingly paternal toward Ray, while Ray gets into scraps, woos a gorgeous Dutch blonde (Clémence Poésy) who might be a drug dealer, and fixates on an American dwarf actor (Jordan Prentice) in town shooting a film—he can’t stop thinking that midgets or dwarves, being midgets or dwarves, have to want to kill themselves, perhaps because he’s inclined that way himself. In Bruges is one of those fish-out-of-water stories in which edgy people from one culture find their minds and hearts expanding in another, except there’s no escaping where they’ve come from, what they are, and what they’ve done. McDonagh has a lapsed Irish Catholic’s sourness: Confession does shite for the soul.
Ray is a comeback role for Farrell, who’s better when he squeezes his volatile persona into earthbound parts than when he labors to fill out mythic ones (as in Miami Vice and, disastrously, Alexander). You do catch him mugging: His heavy black eyebrows form their own Gothic arches of befuddlement, then straighten out to show his animal cunning. But in his cartoonish way, he delivers the emotional goods: He’s a sinner who tries and fails to sink into a stupor, who can’t find his “off” switch, who’s either swooning with love or swinging his fists or sobbing hopelessly in remorse. Gleeson is the straight man, but his deadpan is all-seeing. His ruddy, puttyish face looks slightly squashed, like Yoda coming out of a long bender. His Ken is drawn to the town’s absurdly high bell tower, where he looks down on the square and instinctively gets off an imaginary shot at Ray far down below—then is carried away by his lofty surroundings. You can see his mind churn behind the stillness: What can he do to save the life of his young friend?
What he does, what he’s ordered by Harry to do, and what happens when Fiennes’s Harry (a stunt performance, as fun as it is unlikely) shows up, is romantic bordering on outlandish bordering on demented. In Bruges ends in carnage that’s meant to be both farcical and tragic, and it is funny and it is tragic, but it’s never tragicomic; unlike in his plays, the two don’t mesh. It’s obvious why McDonagh wanted to launch his film career with bang-bang instead of talk-talk. But his timing seems off. Screenwriting is said to be the art of taking away, but McDonagh needs time and space for his characters to regurgitate their stores of bile. It doesn’t do to rush them, and there’s something jarring about the sudden promiscuous mayhem. Yet you can’t sit back and dig it on its own garish B-movie terms, because you care about the characters—and because a child died for this stupid bloody shite.