The downside of living in a twee tourist town is that sometimes you have to deal with people like Ray, Colin Farrell’s character in In Bruges. Stranded in the historic Belgian city after his first gig as a hitman goes nastily awry, the lout has no interest in seeing treasures of medieval art and architecture. “If I had been raised on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me,” he sneers to his companion, Ken (Brendan Gleeson). Ray doesn’t see the appeal of history, either, since, as he says without a flicker of irony, “It’s just a load of stuff that’s already happened.”?
Yes, some people are cut out to be tourists, and others are not. Ray is as pleasure-driven and politically incorrect as his older friend — whose job is to mind him till the crime’s fallout disperses — is sober and considerate. Yet they make a highly entertaining team in this first feature from award-winning Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman), who wrote and directed.?
The trailer for In Bruges makes it look like yet another wannabe Quentin Tarantino flick, similar to last fall’s Shoot ’Em Up. But fans of that genre may be disappointed. In Bruges has no violent setpieces scored to classic rock — instead, think Schubert’s Winterreise. The first half of the movie doesn’t feature much in the way of violence, period. It plays like a talky drama about a simple man who’s coming to terms with his guilt, punctuated by blasts of creative, foul-mouthed humor.?
Like Tarantino’s most famous characters, Ray is a killer with logorrhea, but he’s also a believable human being who can’t shrug off his crimes. And he’s not exactly an icon of cool. In one scene, Ray catches sight of a dwarf actor (Jordan Prentice) accompanied by a camera crew. “They’re filming midgets!” he cries, beaming like a kid on Christmas morning. (Now that’s his kind of tourism.) It’s a good role for Farrell, whose brand of charm has always been reminiscent of the swinging-est boy in middle school.?
McDonagh has an expert hand when it comes to depicting cases of arrested development like this, or characters whose conviction that they are “nice people” is baldly contradicted by the way they act. Ralph Fiennes, who usually plays refined, conscience-ridden types, sinks his teeth into his role as the two men’s boss, a sociopathic cheeseball. (Fiennes waxes eloquent over the “fairy-tale” qualities of Bruges even as he orders up another hit.) If the movie has a moral center, it’s Gleeson, the veteran Irish character actor who plays Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter films. He reminds us that a quiet, older guy with a paunch can be more genuinely courageous than a strutting cock-of-the-walk like Ray.?
Marketing aside, In Bruges isn’t really an action film. But, though it has just one chase scene, it also has enough plot twists to keep viewers riveted till the end. Some of those twists feel a little stagy and over-foreshadowed. And not every phase of Ray’s evolution seems entirely plausible, though Farrell does his damnedest to make it so.?
Overall, the movie works as an outrageous black comedy that makes you care about its characters and the evil and penance they do. When Ray gazes at Bosch’s gruesome images of damnation, then asks Ken if he believes all that stuff, the older man hesitates for a long time. You sense that he wants to give the kid an escape route, a reason to change. But the dark visions of the Flemish master lurk behind the Disney-cute city, and McDonagh leaves it to us to decide whether anyone really ever gets a second chance.?