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In Bruges   B

Focus Features / Film4

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Jérémie Renier, Thekla Reuten, Jordan Prentice.

Review by Rob Vaux

OK endearing hit-man comedy, justify yourself. We've seen plenty of your ilk before, and the fact that you feature Colin Farrell getting loopy on cocaine (and honestly, is there anyone else in the universe you'd rather see getting loopy on cocaine?) doesn't mean we're willing to cut you any slack. What to you have for us? What sets you apart? What do you bring to the table, In Bruges, that necessitates our driving out to the movie theater on a cold February night instead of just firing up our Grosse Pointe Blank DVDs and being done with it?

Well, for starters, there's Farrell. Though his output of late has not engendered much optimism, the actor retains his dangerous charisma, and the role of a killer undergoing a crisis of conscience makes the perfect fulcrum for the turmoil beneath his dark brooding eyes. He's joined by Brendan Gleeson, one of those reliable character actors who never lets you down no matter what kind of a stinker he shows up in. And their foil is the great Ralph Fiennes, playing the sort of cockney bastard that Ben Kingsley used to rock to the foundations and appropriated here with equally malicious glee.

So the cast of In Bruges sets a formidable standard. But is the material ready to keep up with them? Writer-director Martin McDonagh has us covered on that front as well. He posits a scenario full of black humor and sharp comedic jabs, but with an undercurrent of genuine soul searching and a moral philosophy that, while hardly stunning in its originality, at least gives In Bruges a distinctiveness to call its own. Farrell and Gleeson play killers ordered to the titular Belgian city after a successful assassination accrues unwanted casualties. Gleeson's Ken is the elder mentor: thoughtful, cautious, making peace with the grim realities of his job, and smart enough to stop and smell the flowers sometimes. Farrell's Ray is the youthful apprentice: edgy, full of beans, and exhibiting congenial hostility to hide his deeply troubled core. The ancient spires and 12th-century churches of Bruges hold no interest for him, though he finds himself smitten by a pretty young drug dealer (Clémence Poésy) working the local film set. Ken -- willing to stay put and keep quiet like he's told -- indulges his partner's squirreliness while quietly chiding the lack of appreciation for the art and beauty in the town around them.

McDonagh overlays the breezy tone with enough off-kilter gags to keep us occupied while In Bruges gears up for its real purpose. The not-quite-botched assassination weighs heavily on both men's minds and when Fiennes shows up to settle accounts as a matter of "principle," it plunges all three of them into a measured study of their shaky moral codes. The thriller elements crank into high gear as betrayal leads to swift and brutal gunplay, but McDonagh insists on girding it with musings far more extensive than which combatant will come out on top. The setting itself takes on especial significance in that regard (and justifies the otherwise baffling title). Surrounded by the relics of Catholicism, the trio grapples with issues of guilt, atonement, and absolution -- whether it is possible for those such as they to possess any kind of measurable ethos. Ironically, they seem to need it more than most of us. For having made the decision to kill for a living -- to decide, for whatever reason, that getting paid to commit murder is OK -- they must now draw increasingly arbitrary lines to justify the blood on their hands. We'll never kill women, we'll never kill kids, we'll never shoot someone in the back... anything to imply that their job is something other than an absolute evil. McDonagh allows the theme to percolate largely through the characters' emotions, deviating only occasionally into more heavy-handed symbolism. Under the eye of DP Eigil Bryld, Bruges becomes a kind of tourist-laden purgatory: filmed in hues that (to quote one character) look like something out of a fairy tale, but holding a quiet sense of entrapment for the bloody figures rattling through its streets.

That lends the movie not only a solid visual stamp, but a way to handle its abundant black comedy without resorting to psychiatrist jokes, let's-move-the-corpse gags, or any of the genre's other tired clichés. McDonagh's background in stage plays affects a slightly stilted feel here, but the camerawork betrays little of such tendencies and the performances all benefit from a director who knows how to get the best out of good actors. In Bruges can't help but reveal the fruits of such craftsmanship... which is all the justification it will ever need.

Review published 02.07.2008.

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