Saturday, February 9, 2008
Movie review: In Bruges
Score one for honor among thieves. (Make that killers.)
In Bruges is rough stuff, and I mean that in a positive way. Its vulgarity-strewn, potty-mouth opening misleads (as does its shoot-em-up preview trailer): this is deeply reflective material that considers unflinchingly the obligations of one's career, the demanding yet ennobling bonds of friendship and the inevitable choices that have to be made in favor of one at the expense of the other. It dives headlong into the ambiguous mechanics of failure and redemption. Happily, it is also unquestionably adult, and not just because of the language. Nothing in Bruges has been sugar-coated or glamorized: within these frames, a pig will be shown to be a pig, without any dressing up whatsoever.
Before you turn tail and jog off to the cinema next door playing Hollywood's latest light-hearted action-adventure romantic comedy, I should hasten to mention that Bruges (rhymes with "rouge") is, on the surface, a movie about hit men with guns. It's also hilariously funny, though on occasion you may find yourself checking nervously 'round about to see whether it was O.K. for you to have laughed at that socially and/or politically incorrect incident or anecdote. (Karate chopping dwarves? BRILLIANT! A punch to the face of the elegant lady dining at the table next to you? She deserved it. Honest!)
Much of the credit for the successful tightrope-dancing balance struck between darkness and comedy achieved by director Martin McDonagh must go to co-stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who play off each other with the genuine ambivalence of two workmates forced to cohabit while on assignment far from home. The fact that their work involves assassination and their assignment is simply to lay low for several days speaks to both the blackness and the comedic potential of the story - a potential fully realized, as we come to discover.
The city of Bruges, to which Ray (Mr. Farrell) and Ken (Mr. Gleeson) have been exiled following a problematic assignment, is a remarkably well-preserved medieval town in Belgium; its interlacing navigable canals and history-dripping architecture make it a place out of time, removed from normality. It's a fantasy land where tourists come to marvel at the atmosphere of the place (presently cold and shrouded in fog) while taking in the rather ghastly spectacle of Hieronymus Bosch canvasses, brimming with images of torture and damnation. (It was possibly following the close examination of a Bosch painting that the term "go medieval on you" was coined.)
Bruges is, in fact, reminiscent of Venice, only less well-known and at a far northern remove. Thus it's no coincidence that director McDonagh (who also scripted) references - both overtly and thematically - Nicholas Roeg's haunting cinematic ode to the mystery and dark romance of Venice, Don't Look Now. The plot (of Bruges) incorporates similar elements of predestination and foreshadowing, while - at the surface level - there's a movie crew filming on the streets which puckishly includes among its cast members a little person (Jordan Prentice as Jimmy) clothed in red.
In a very real sense, Bruges becomes purgatory for the hit team of Ray and Ken, as they've been sent there by their criminal boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes, exuding barely-controlled menace), while he decides what to do with them after their recent botched job. For Ken - the older, wiser and far more cultured of the two - the Bruges posting is welcome, since he revels in the historical ambiance of the place. For Irish working-class Ray, on the other hand, Bruges becomes a stand-in for Hell: where's the night life? Where does one go to engage in drunken mayhem following a football match? (In fact, where are the football matches?) We get the sense that it's only the presence of a comfortable neighborhood pub that keeps a testy and hyperactive Ray from rampaging through the crowds of vapid American tourists with a crowbar - or maybe a scythe.
Something's eating at Ray, and it has to do with what went wrong on their recent assignment. His discomfort at being in this provincial backwater might be as easily felt anywhere, but in Bruges it's magnified by the close confines, twisty byways and one-dimensional pre-Renaissance tourist-serving aesthetic. His accidental encounter with a lovely young woman (Clémence Poésy, as Chloë) provides respite from his torment - but this, too, comes with a price.
When Ken finds out what Harry wants him to do to make amends, events begin to swerve uncontrollably into dark, violent and irreversible territory. Choices will perforce be made, and the alternatives are unremittingly bad ones.
Events kick into high gear during a confrontation between Harry and Ken at the top of a 13th-century bell tower; following this gut-wrenching encounter the action proceeds at breakneck speed until the satisfying, grimly redemptive conclusion. Martin McDonagh's pacing, eye for detail and ability to elicit subtlety from his performers are remarkably well-developed for one with only a single previous film under his belt - and that one a 27-minute short. This 37-year-old playwright/auteur is a talent to watch.
Much can be made of the fact that the characters in this pitch black tale are so difficult to put down. No one-shot, drop-dead kills for any of these blokes: multiple perforations are required to silence antagonists, probably because they're as much allegorical constructs as they are flesh and blood. These are not just people - they're aspects of human behavior given the breath of life.
DOOMED TO REPEAT IT, THEN?: "It's all just a load of stuff that's already happened." - Ray, re. history
BEGGARS CAN BE CHOOSERS: "I want a normal gun for a normal person." - Harry to Yuri (Eric Godon), who's trying to interest him in an Uzi
FAMOUS LAST WORDS: "You've got to stick to your principles." - Harry to Ray
See more stories in:
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- Video: Pegnews film guys in Oscar preview mode
- Pegasus News Movies 2008: Cream of the crop, from our heaving critical gizzards to yours
- Movie review: Pride and Glory
- New on DVD: In Bruges, 10,000 B.C., Definitely, Maybe, Honeydripper, Charlie Bartlett and Persepolis