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.
There are a lot of blank stares in The Band’s Visit, one of those Napoleon Dynamite–like deadpan comedies in which the camera and the characters remain frozen for moments that go on … and on. The nerds of Napoleon Dynamite are dislocated existentially, though; here, the title characters are luckless Egyptians lost in Israel, a land that’s genuinely alien—and potentially hostile. The political context cuts against the overall sweetness, but only a little. Sweetness leaks from every frame.
The Egyptians are members of an Alexandrian police orchestra and supposed to play in a place called Petah Tikvah. But they end up in Bet Hatikvah (they don’t know Hebrew), the middle of nowhere, where they stand in a row beside the dusty road in robin’s-egg-blue military uniforms—staring blankly. There is no bus out until the next day. There is no hotel. There is, however, a little roadside café run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a Sabra beauty who keeps a wry distance, then proves to be so hungry for contact she can barely stop wiggling suggestively. She wiggles especially suggestively not for the band’s irrepressible Romeo, Haled (Saleh Bakri), but its leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), a middle-aged little guy with a bulbous honker and an air of loss. You can predict the rest. The orchestra will spend the night; its members will have fleeting moments of connection with the Israelis; and Dina and Tewfiq will awkwardly get to the heart of their respective aloneness. It’s all so easily charted, but thanks to the actors’ faces and the wit (and economy) of the first-time Israeli director, Eran Kolirin, it breathes.
The Band’s Visit made headlines when Israel submitted it for a foreign-language Oscar and it was disqualified because more than half the dialogue is in English. That’s a particularly tin-eared decision because the English itself is distinctly foreign-language—it’s a halting middle ground on which the Arabic and Hebrew speakers can half-meet. The pleasure comes from watching the characters try to frame their thoughts in another tongue. In the film’s most glorious scene, Haled the ladies’ man finds himself in a roller disco with a young Israeli, who says (in English) that every time he tries to talk to a girl “I hear the sea in my ears.” He asks Haled what it’s like to sleep with a woman, and Haled says, “I can tell you, but only in Arabic”—and launches into a mellifluous monologue that’s so madly, gorgeously evocative that even without knowing a word of Arabic the young man is stirred to action. What follows—the balcony scene of Cyrano de Bergerac in pantomime—is even funnier.
The Band’s Visit resounds with tenderness and melancholy. What’s missing is even a hint of dissonance. Having established that unnerving political context, Kolirin treats the situation of Egyptians adrift in Israel as if it were, say, Chinese people in a North Miami Jewish condominium. There’s no threat—there’s barely a nod to the fact that the countries were at war. It’s a breeze making the case for universal harmony when all of your characters are neutered.
Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show sounds like a blast: It’s wild-man Vaughn and a bunch of performers barreling across the country in a bus (with bunk beds) playing 30 shows in 30 nights, in homage to the Wild West troupers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Yee-haw, I love a good Wild West variety show! Disappointment sets in when it’s clear that there will be little in the way of variety. There are, for example, no women onboard, and nothing like rope tricks or cigars being shot out of squaws’ mouths. There isn’t even a lot of music. It’s Vaughn (the master of ceremonies), a few of his friends (child actor and producer Peter Billingsley, Justin Long, and, one night, Jon Favreau), and four youngish, intermittently funny stand-up comedians: Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, and Sebastian Maniscalco. The director, Ari Sandel, never gives you a sense of how the shows were structured. He serves up snippets of routines, shots of the comedians pacing backstage (“I shit like seven times before a show”), and glimpses of pretty girls in the audience—and then it’s on to the next city. Eventually, Vaughn fades into the background and each comedian gets his own little bio, his own moment to show how he overcame life’s obstacles, and his own moment to shine. In Alabama, the comedians bring free tickets to Katrina evacuees and realize they shouldn’t be bitching about having to share a single motel room. After the last show, in Chicago, they hug and cry. It was undoubtedly a great experience for everyone involved, and the show itself might have been a romp. But as a movie, Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show makes you think of the days in which troupes that didn’t deliver were run out of town, bullets pinging off their heels.
Although Martin McDonagh grew up in London and lives there still, his plays are almost obsessively Irish centric—six are set on the remote islands off the west coast of Ireland, where his father grew up. His other obsession: violence. When The Lieutenant of Inishmore hit Broadway, the Atlantic Theater posted a sign warning of “extremely violent scenes,” and the production was gory enough to pose logistical problems. Featuring severed limbs, cat innards, and full-on corpses, the onstage massacre required nine different types of fake blood, which were mixed by hand in a Lodi, New Jersey, garage—to the tune of 40 to 50 gallons a week.
Q&A With Director Martin McDonagh
Directed by Martin McDonagh.
Focus Features. R.
The Band’s Visit
Directed by Eran Kolirin.
Sony Pictures Classics. PG-13.
Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show
Directed by Ari Sandel.
Picturehouse Entertainment. R.