Martin McDonagh's feature debut is a curiosity in a year that has so far seen too few of them. It's a film that stars A-list talent (believe me, if Colin Farrell's not on your must-watch list after this, he probably never will be), contains some very violent set pieces, and is really quite funny; usually the sort of film that people flock to see in droves, or at least they used to. It's not, however, in any way typical. The humor is black as night at points, and sometimes swerves so far over the edge that it becomes difficult to know if you should be laughing at the joke itself, or the nonchalant nature with which it was presented. The A-list talent mentioned above is also likely people American audiences don't have any idea who they are in the first place, so their names don't matter. And, lastly, the violence is reserved, rather oddly, for the last quarter of the movie, in which the whole ordeal turns exceptionally bloody and dark. It may be the best serio-comic dream sequence/metaphor about existence in Purgatory to come out this year.
IN BRUGES, in quick summation, tells the story of two hitmen, Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, respectively), sent to Belgium (in the eponymous town) to hideout while their boss, Harry, attempts to deal with an unfortunate incident back in London that took place during Ray's first hit - on a priest. The plot is pretty straightforward, but there are enough twists and surprises in the how that I'm not going to ruin it in a review. Needless to say, Harry gets miffed and shows up in Bruges to take matters into his own hands, and everything gets really bloody very quickly.
The film plays like a nightmare, which Ray can't seem to wake from. Apart from the tragedy that landed him in his current situation, he is stuck in Bruges, Belgium, a place he finds so appallingly bland that it is tortuous to be in the city at all. This, of course, is the opposite of his partner, Ken, who we learn has brought Ray into the organization he works for now, and who is a slightly older, worldlier man, interested in the many sightseeing offerings that Bruges has to give. Both Farrell and Gleeson are wonderful, with the first half of the movie resting almost entirely on their shoulders as the two men wander around the city waiting to hear from their boss. The film smartly delivers its back story, and it never feels rushed or, even worse, like it was cut and pasted from another screenplay entirely, despite its adherence to many of the rules of the "down and out hit man" genre.
A lot of the freshness that the film has comes from its writer/director, Martin McDonagh, an Irish playwright who won an Academy Award for his first short film in 2006. The screenplay for IN BRUGES is a wry mix of humor and pathos, and the film's style very much accentuates the feeling of some awful dream from which one cannot awake; it's not a nightmare exactly, but a möbius strip, with parts eternally looping back on one another, and cross-referencing and coming back to the starting point. Bruges is purgatory, and Ken and Ray are simply waiting for their judgement at the hands of the hot-tempered Harry.
During the waiting they get into some mischief, and meet all kinds of odd characters, who only lend to the dream-like state: a dwarf actor filming some Eurotrash art-film, a drug-dealer who sometimes robs tourists with her ex-boyfriend and falls in love with Ray, and a sweet inn-keeper who is pregnant and refuses to give up her hotel even when faced with certain death at the hands of a psychopathic Harry. Harry himself may be the most nightmarish character in the film. He is a mob boss of some kind who has a wife and children, and who has some very strict rules about his profession that make for some awkward moments, like the aforementioned showdown in the inn. The final act, in which Harry shows up in the town, is one of the most impressive paths of destruction I've ever seen, careening down bell towers, across waterways and through myriad alleyways before winding up at the only conclusion possible, and bringing everything full circle.
That very, very smart concept of looping is even upheld in the humor of the film, which continuously builds on gags set up long before (the scene with the overweight American tourists seen in the trailer pays off not one, but two more times). And Colin Farrell, I never thought I'd say, is very very funny here. Ray is a character who cannot enjoy himself, even when not being burdened by a dark secret. Everything that could end up right for him does end up going wrong, though, so maybe there's a reason he's got such a cynical view of the world. Or, maybe he brings it on himself, and maybe he has bad luck, but I think the lesson that should be taken away from IN BRUGES is that being a constant sourpuss gets you nowhere. If the film's ending is any indication, and Ray's suspicions about Bruges are correct, then I think it's safe to say that it certainly does not get you anywhere you want to be.