In Bruges

In Bruges

See the sights in sunny Bruges

dir: Martin McDonough


It’s not often that I am completely ignorant of a film’s content or worth prior to checking it out, but I can honestly say that I knew nothing about In Bruges, Bruges or director Martin McDonough before watching this flick.

Sure, I’d heard that it was an okay film, but I had no practical knowledge of what would transpire when I watched it. And that’s a good thing.

Two criminals, Ray (Colin Farell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are forced by their boss Harry (Ralph Feinnes) to take a little trip to a medieval town in Belgium called Bruges. We don’t know why for the film’s first half hour at least.

Ken finds the town beautiful, and is excited about doing some sightseeing. Ray is jittery, and acts like a reluctant five-year-old boy being dragged to cultural sights and delights that he couldn’t possibly give a toss about. Ken and Ray seem to have that snippy, comfortable relationship of people who’ve known each other long enough to know how far to go before pulling back, what, with the constant insults and sharing of drugs.

But then we find out why Ray is so jittery, and why they’re on an enforced sabbatical in such a lovely, idyllic but strange place. Much is made of the locale, and some distinctive imagery courtesy of one Hieronymus Bosch. And then, regardless of how we might feel about Ray and Ken, we know it’s only going to go downhill.

In Bruges is quite funny in certain parts, not least of which arises from Ray’s wicked ways, Ken’s world-weary but decent heart and the sometimes insane, sometimes brutal things that happen to them along the way. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a comedy, and it certainly shouldn’t be confused for one. The reason for Ray’s guilt and his desire for self-destruction is too horrifying, too absolute to ever take the film anything but seriously once it is revealed. Even when he jokes about it during a getting-to-know-you dinner with a lovely local lass that he really wants to shag (Clémence Poésy), you know it’s no joke.

But we’re not meant to be weighed down by it, even if it informs everything that happens from then on. So we watch the men as they interact in their melancholy scene, and as they grasp at some kind of meaning in a place not conducive to it.

It is so inimical to it that their surroundings become more absurd the more the story goes on, where it becomes less a postcard town worthy of sending your parents on a package tour to, and more the purgatory that Bosch’s demented imagination conjured in his paintings.

Ken is put in a difficult position by his employer Harry, who seems to have watched the movie Sexy Beast (as in the terrifying Cockney character Don, as played by Ben Kingsley a few years ago), who also decides that direct involvement in proceedings is needed to put everything in order.

That’s when the surroundings begin to be populated with dwarves, drug dealers, people who violently object to smokers even in the smoking section of a restaurant, Dutch hookers making economic decisions based on the market perception of their vaginas, and strange Ukrainian arms dealers obsessed with the alcoves, nooks and crannies of the area.

Even though it’s absurdly funny, I wouldn’t call it quirky, which is a definite plus in my book. The tone is right, so very right throughout, so that when coincidence and contrivance combine to render the inevitable conclusion a whole hell of a lot more convenient, it doesn’t rankle with me as much as it would in another flick.

The strangest thing is that the flick is virtually plotless, but I found myself on the edge of my seat for the film’s entire length. The quality of the screenplay shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, since the director is (apparently, it’s not like I know from personal experience) an accomplished playwright. And it shines through, since the film lives and dies in its dialogue between the characters, especially Ken and Ray.

Colin Farrell, and it hurts to say this, is really quite good in this. Every one of us has seen movies with Colin Farrell in them where you wish you could reach into the screen and slap him, compared with the films like Alexander where you’re still occasionally drinking methylated spirits in the hope of deleting the particular memories associated with that debacle.

It won’t work. Trust me, I’ve been trying for years.

He is pretty spot on as this character, though I’m guessing it wasn’t much of a stretch. He gets a good portion of the smart dialogue, including some bizarre non sequiturs at the most inopportune moments that only make sense when you wonder as to the flick’s clear contempt towards tourist Americans.

There are plenty of jibes aimed at Americans that make me think the flick had practically no chance of getting an American audience, which is probably a good thing. What’s even better is that after one particularly funny random fight with some people Ray thought were American, upon finding out that they were Canadian, he feels almost bad for his actions.

Ray’s role is the showy one, but the solid performance goes to Gleeson, as the older and wiser Ken, though he’s not necessarily in any better position than young lunatic Ray. Gleeson is such a dependable actor, so great at embodying any role given to him that complementing him for another good performance seems kind of redundant.

But praise he deserves all the same. His interactions with Ray come second only to his almost unbelievable scenes with Harry, either in person or over the phone, who comes to Bruges to see the sights as well.

Fiennes is a chronic over-actor, and has no problem playing a villain, as his work in the Harry Potter flicks, Maid in Manhattan and The English Patient will testify. Sure he overacts here, but it’s a part written for and demanding of over-acting. I have to admit that, after some terse words shouted in anger at his wife as the family gather around the Christmas tree, when he apologises for calling her a fucking inanimate object, I practically pissed myself laughing against my will, the cad.

The long scene Harry and Ken share up a bell tower which seemed like it was going to only have one conclusion, becomes an altogether more complicated scene, ending as it does perhaps unbelievably, but with enough meaning all the same. There’s enough history and respect, and perhaps even love between these two men that nothing works out simply. Nor can that history result in a different outcome, I guess.

The criminal world, as embodied by at least the crim characters in this flick, is shown to be an absurd, almost childish one. Despite the dead seriousness of what is to transpire, the characters themselves behave in ways that say the rules of their game are as arbitrary and ridiculous as the rules of a playground game where certain colours on the ground represent red hot lava, or a certain location represents a safe haven. Apart from emphasising such a concept with their actual behaviour, or their proposals for how to resolve stand-offs, this theme is emphasised even with the use of a playground during a crucial scene, and the constant emphasis on children as tangential but transformative figures.

After all, a child is the reason why any of this is happening, and a (seeming) child that leads at least one character to his absurd end. But the real fight is over whether Ray, referred to often as “the kid” at least by Harry, can earn redemption, and this flick at least, for once, has the more believable and genuine resolution to such a search, which isn’t really one that Ray is on anyway. All he really wants is to get laid.

Perhaps it is Ken who is the one really trying to earn his salvation, but that’s just one of the many questions this most excellent film had me thinking about when it ended. I loved almost everything about this flick, from beginning to end, except for the soundtrack, but otherwise I’d say this is one of the more accomplished, low-key flicks that I’ve seen this year. Though there is violence in the flick, not for a moment would you confuse it with a violent crime action flick like Max Payne or Mamma Mia! Mostly, and I know how easily this will be misinterpreted, it’s a flick about the relationships between three men involved in a surreal world where the rules may be arbitrary, but they nevertheless must be ruthlessly enforced.

8 times you too might wonder if Belgium is purgatory if you’ve been there out of 10

“Well, here we are in a room with two manky hookers and a racist dwarf” – In Bruges.