I once had the opportunity to visit Bruges, the most well preserved medieval city in Belgium according to the film at hand, but I skipped it in favor of a few extra days in Paris. In Bruges, the first full-length movie from celebrated Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, didn’t make me regret my decision since it presents Bruges as halfway between heaven and hell: a gingerbread town with gumdrop streets where natives sell heroine to dwarves and American tourists huff and puff like the fat dicks we are (only Canadians come off looking more dickish, for once). Despite fine acting, hilarious dialogue delivered in a charming Irish brogue, and wonderful set ups, In Bruges is something of a mixed bag. It's not a bad experience, but it is much too long and the ending is so relentlessly bloody that the genuinely touching first two-thirds are rendered moot in a hail of soft bullets.
Most unfortunately, Bruges itself is given the short shrift for no real comprehensible reason. If you’re going to give Bruges titular billing, the city had better be as much a character as the potty-mouthed hit men who are touring it. Instead Bruges comes off as a nothing place, a Belgian version of California’s tourist-addled Solvang, making both the vitriol and affection expressed about it incongruous.
The plot concerns two Irish hit men, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Collin Farrell), who have been sent by their unscrupulous yet principled boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out in Bruges following a job in London gone wrong. Ken is happy to be there and delights in taking boat rides on the canals and visiting churches that hold sacred Christian hallows. Ray on the other hand, is tortured by the events of the murder and hates Bruges on sight, calling it a shit-hole, a hell-hole, any sort of pejorative name that crosses his mind. Since it's Christmas and everything else is booked, the pair is forced to share a room at a hotel. The Christian allegories don’t with the holiday; before the film is over, the audience is treated to a gauzy re-creation of Bosch’s “The Last Judgement”, which Ken and Ray first contemplate in a sterile museum.
Harry has instructed them to stay put during the evenings to await his phone call. Ray is fidgety and wants to go out, drown his sorrows in Belgian beer. He doesn’t know why Harry has sent them to Bruges as they could easily have hid out in Croyden or any other British town. Ken ventures that perhaps Harry has sent them to Bruges in order to commit another murder. When Harry’s phone call finally comes, Ken is proved right, but not in the way he expects.
The acting here is a top notch revelation and easily the film’s greatest asset. Colin Farrell, all past sins are forgiven. His portrayal of Ray is spot-on and effective. Like a depressed Guy Smiley, Farrell can communicate every wrench of the heart with a furrowing of his bushy eyebrows. Watch him in the scene where he convinces Ken to go out for a drink: He curls up, bites his finger nails, rocks back and forth like a child. And he is a child, in a way. The relationship between the two hit men is decidedly patriarchal. While Ray and Ken exchange barbed remarks, it is clear that they rely on each other like a father and son, albeit a father and son who murder people for a living. Gleeson is reliably wonderful, like an old hound dog that has seen too much sadness in his life. Ken’s inner torture is almost as terrible as Ray’s, though he has found ways to cope with it. Fiennes snacks on scenery as a man with the worst temper imaginable (“You are an inanimate object!”, he screams at his wife on Christmas eve, after she has the gall to criticize his choice of the telephone as a prime candidate for a beat down). Even though his performance is a delight, it's hard to take too much pleasure in it since the appearance of Harry signals the beginning of the end. There are other characters involved too, including a beguiling Belgian drug dealing cutie and a racist American dwarf who fantasizes about a race war while smoking a huge joint. These faces are not seamlessly sewn into the plot, but by the end it is clear why they were included.
While watching In Bruges, I was reminded of Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, in which Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie meander through a gloomy wintertime Venice, the season during which the floating city seeps evilness from every pore. In Bruges also takes place in the wintertime and Bruges is alternately overcast or covered in a light dusting of snow. However, in Roeg’s film, Venice is a place so wicked it not only traps the tormented characters in a labyrinth of suffering, but reflects that suffering, becomes the suffering. McDonagh has rendered Bruges as a non-entity. It could be any place in Europe, except that it is Bruges and it sucks there, for reasons we never fully understand. The irony of sinful people walking through a preserved fairytale village may have looked delightful on paper, but it does not translate on-screen since Bruges doesn’t come off as a lovely, unspoiled place anyway. During the final moments, after everything has gone to hell, Ray continues to bemoan how terrible it is that he’s in “fucking Bruges”. We are inclined to agree.