I think that I will shortly be purchasing the Oscar winning short film Six Shooter from 2004. I've got an iTunes gift card for just the job. The thought occurred to me after seeing the wonderful debut from director Martin McDonagh, In Bruges. After seeing the trailer, which really worked for me, many times and wondering at how it is from an Oscar winning director yet never hearing of the name, I did some research. While he already has more little gold men than Alfred Hitchcock, his actual feature premiere is what has opened this weekend. It is Irish, most definitely, and if you have trouble with the accent, maybe you should steer clear until in comes out on DVD, however, if you can cope, this is a smart pitch black comedy. When I say pitch black, I mean black hole expanse of darkness. The trailer leads you to believe it will be an uproarious time, and while it is very funny and very smart, there is a tragic event that is held over the proceedings, lending a somber shadow over all that occurs. In the end though, it is consistent with its wit and drama, telling an intriguing story and never relying on the laughs to hide any plot point that the creators may not have wanted to work out to completion.
If I am to gripe about anything, it will be the ending. Not the very end, however, as that is absolutely perfect. The camera-work, voice-over, and final shot cannot be argued, it is the climax that happens just before that rings false. It is the only moment like that, though, so I don't hold it against the film. McDonagh needed a way to get his characters to their arc's conclusions and if that means turning one of the roles, at first seeming to be there for jokes, into a pawn for a symmetrical kind of convenience, I'll give him that reprieve. As far as fitting with the story, yeah it works; it has to because the incident is alluded to unknowingly at many times during the course of the sightseeing romp. I guess I think it fits too well and wish McDonagh could have come up with another way to do it.
Besides that, though, In Bruges is a great time at the theatre. Colin Farrell is steadily becoming a favorite of mine with his precise comic timing and broad facial expressions. I may be one of the few people on earth that loved his comedic turn in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, (yes I truly believe the comedy was intentional), and here he shows it was not a fluke. Kind of similar to his scene-stealing role in Intermission, he is a punk with a lousy disposition and disregard for tact. Here, however, he also has a conscience. This tug-of-war is ripe for laughs as he is a sweet guy, he just doesn't know how to keep his mouth shut. One-liners are in abundance and you will be laughing continuously. Brendan Gleeson helps this fact by being an effective straightman to play off of. He knows the score and tries to enjoy the "fairytale" city while his cohort sulks and puts on "moods like a five year old" because, honestly, unless you grew up on a farm and were slightly retarded, Bruges is really just hell on earth. (Actually, the city looks pretty great and I wouldn't mind checking it out once in my lifetime.) The periphery roles, and there are many, also add depth and interest to the film. Small characters like Eric Godon's alcove loving gun dealer, Jordan Prentice as a horse-tranquilizer taking midget actor (he played Howard the Duck, that is awesome), and Clémence Poésy as the love interest and enigma Cholë all are fun and never quite feel just thrown in as jokes, but instead integral parts to the story. Of course, the great Ralph Fiennes is involved too. His accent and vocabulary rivals Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast and unfortunately is a much smaller part than anticipated from the trailer. Well maybe not unfortunately, because if he was in more it might have become a gimmick. I also couldn't help stop thinking of Harry Potter with Mad-Eye Moody, Lord Voldemort, and Fleur Delacour all involved.
I highly recommend this film for anyone looking to see a good drama with comic overtones. Don't go in thinking this is to be a total good time, with laughs a minute, there is so much more to the tale that you may not expect or necessarily be hoping for. At times it is very dark and drains every molecule of happiness out of your heads, but thankfully a good joke or line will be coming shortly to alleviate the depression.
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The best films waste no time, and In Bruges hits the ground sprinting with this pin-sharp voiceover: "After I'd killed him, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off my hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions."
Bam. Within 10 seconds, the story has begun. A young hitman, Ray (Colin Farrell), has botched his first job for East End crime boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) and needs to go away for a while – to Bruges. He is incandescently stroppy about this. Accompanying him is Ken (Brendan Gleeson), an older gangster who, guidebook in hand, greets the Belgian town and its misty pre-Christmas streets with the determined gusto of your dad on a camping trip, all deep nose-breathing and itineraries.
Bruges is really the fourth name on the cast list here: its 12th-century canals and lamplit cobbles form the perfect backdrop to the script's crepuscular tone, as well as its somewhat medieval probing of morality and blame and redemption. Because (spoilers ahead!) Ray, in the course of performing a hit on a priest, has also inadvertently shot dead a choirboy. His rage at being stuck in this purgatorial "shithole" hides an anguish over what, if there is an afterlife, must surely be an unpardonable sin.
Like both leads and the film's writer-director, Martin McDonagh, the two protagonists are Irish. They traipse dutifully around the city's Catholic shrines and get into misunderstandings with foreigners. The point seems to be about belonging: two men, alienated by their profession, are stranded in a city full of families, at a time for families, having irrevocably maimed a family. ("There's a Christmas tree somewhere in London," says Ray, "with a bunch of presents underneath it that'll never be opened.") When Ken receives the order to bump off his young companion – this phone call, in which Harry suddenly describes Ray in the past tense, is chilling beyond description – the old hitman's fatherliness flourishes, pitching him against Harry, a friend to whom he owes a debt from long ago.
In Bruges happened to me by accident one night on DVD. I didn't catch it at the cinema because the poster made it look like some sort of crime caper – another questionable credit for Colin Farrell. In fact, a crime caper is what it almost is, but it's also something more postmodern: a film noir gatecrashed by reality. What begins as a faintly chilling overlap of the underworld and the everyday – Ray washes his hands 'in the bathroom of a Burger King' – becomes glorious farce when normality refuses to go back in its box and let drama take over.
The result is like watching Pulp Fiction's "Royale with cheese" exchange stretched over 90 minutes, only it's braver than Tarantino because these hitmen never disappear into cool. They take out their contact lenses at night, queue up at tourist sites, drink too much local beer and tread on each other's toes in the budget hotel room they're forced to share. They fall over in the snow. It's relentless, like normality is. The film's only chase scene ends when the pursuer simply runs out of puff and has to stop to check his map (you know how these European canal towns are). Another character, grievously wounded, drags himself with his last strength to the top of Bruges's medieval belfry to administer a lifesaving sniper shot, only to find – something that never happens at crucial moments in movies – the marketplace has been totally obscured by fog. Time and again, bathos derails pathos. McDonagh won't let the film slide fully into either tragedy or comedy, but keeps it switching between, like a cockney villain trying to maintain his balance on icy cobbles.
I say villain, but from the moment Ralph Fiennes enters proper it's clear he's not going to be the thundering Don Logan-style nut he sounds on the phone. Harry is borderline psychotic maybe, dangerous certainly, but he's also a sentimental duffer with a deep fondness for his old friend Ken. This is Fiennes as he's never been seen: a buffoonish but strangely decent working-class criminal who adheres with all his might to an odd but staunch set of principles. His turmoil when he confronts Gleeson's dark-eyed, childlike face manages to be both ridiculous and moving, with both characters trying to suppress the warmth they feel.
Even then, Farrell steals the show. If you like to see big-league actors demonstrate why they're famous in the first place, this is your film. Ray's tears as he tortures himself over the death of the boy are heartbreakingly realistic, his teenagerish sulks hilarious. Great supporting performances bolster but don't overpower – my favourite being the away-with-the-fairies gun dealer, Yuri, who develops a fixation, mid-conversation, with the word "alcoves". ("He does yoga," Harry tells Ken.) The script, as far as I can see, is perfect, embroidering lofty themes with the earthiest of dialogue. McDonagh's background is in theatre and you can tell: the action is tightly unified, resolving itself through a series of satisfying set-pieces in the town's historic centre. In Bruges is one of the few films I could easily rewatch immediately after finishing it, if only to take notes on how he did it. The first time around you're too busy not knowing whether to laugh.