I’ve been watching a lot of crime drama/comedy recently for some reason. In addition to Hot Fuzz and Leon: The Professional, plus re-visiting Godfather I & II and all five seasons of Breaking Bad, I’ve now watched Martin McDonagh’s 2008 black comedy caper. And yes it made me want to go to Bruges.
The movie doesn’t waste any time setting up the story: in the medieval fairy-tale city of Bruges, located in Belgium, two hitmen are lying low after a botched job back home. Ken (Brendan Gleeson), the older gangster with a fatherly look about him, is happy to take delight in the picturesque tourist attractions and museums, guidebook in hand. Ray (Colin Farrell), the younger hitman, couldn’t care less about the pretty canals and cobbled streets, sulking like a stroppy teenage brat forced into a boring cultural activity by his dad. The only two things that pique his interest in all of Bruges are a film crew shooting a movie with the cast including a dwarf named Jimmy, and a hot date with a young woman he meets on the set.
To say anything else about the story would be going into the spoiler territory. Suffice to say that Ray’s petulant rage over being stuck in Bruges, which initially makes him a less likeable one of the pair, hides a terrible secret. Once revealed, it gives Ray a more vulnerable dimension, and a chance for Farrell to use those big brown puppyish eyes of his to their full effect. It might not be enough for me to forget his disastrously miscast turn in Alexander, but it’s a truly wonderful and affecting performance highlighting Farrell’s talent for black comedy. The medieval architecture of Bruges also becomes a perfect backdrop for the questions of morality and redemption that the movie, beneath its foul-mouthed irreverence, raises rather thoughtfully.
While Farrell’s casting as a brash young hitman is not particularly left-field, Gleeson’s appearance is more of a surprise, but a welcome one, with grounded and protective Ken a perfect foil for the troubled younger man. Though his character here is in many ways an antithesis of Gleeson’s memorable lead role as a priest in Calvary, this older gangster with blood on his hands ends up making a choice that is curiously similar. Speaking of unusual casting, I’ll allow one small spoiler and mention Ralph Fiennes, who makes a late but glorious entrance as Ray and Ken’s psychotic yet oddly principled crime boss. In my mind Ralph Fiennes is pretty much synonymous with “posh”, so it was a revelation to see him play a working-class criminal dropping c-bombs.
In Bruges plays out like a carefully laid out sequence of set-ups and payoffs, where even the most random of encounters and smallest of details will come back into the story and send it into yet another unexpected direction. The frenetic final act may depend on coincidence far too much and is probably totally ridiculous when you think about it, but at that point I was too invested in the story and characters to really care. While some of the dialogue at times suffers from “I’m quirky and I know it”, it’s sharp, fast and very funny, though I’m probably too polite to quote most of it.
P.S. I tried and tried to recall where I’ve seen the actress who plays Ray’s adorable and duplicitous love interest, before I realised that she was Fleur in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
P.P.S. I guess I technically visited Belgium while doing a stopover in Brussels airport on the way from Edinburgh to Venice last year. It was a brutal early morning flight, with a delay that cost us our connecting flight, so I’d like to have some better memories of Belgium. Preferably one involving a lot of chocolates and quaint medieval architecture.