Monday, March 10, 2008

In Theaters: In Bruges

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As great as it is when a film’s story is finely and precisely constructed, it’s also nice when it doesn’t seem that stressed about such things. IN BRUGES doesn’t have a bad story, by any means, but it unfolds with an endearing shagginess that implies it’s not making too much of an effort; for all I know the plot is put together like clockwork, but it’s concealed under a veneer of casual ease. It’s a fun black comedy, sharp and sad and funny, but mostly loose-limbed and deliberately sort of gangly. At its core there’s some very clever stuff about sin, death, redemption, etc.- the kind of material you normally see in gangster and caper pictures, but not like this.

Colin Farrell stars as Ray, a hitman working for British crime boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes), and he and fellow assassin Ken (Brendan Gleeson) have just completed a hit in London that went rather bad- Ray shot a priest, for reasons that are never fully given, but one of the bullets went and killed a young boy waiting to take confession. Ray and Ken are told by Harry to lay low for a couple of weeks in the Belgian town of Bruges, a well-preserved medieval town that’s a minor tourist attraction and pretty much Ray’s idea of Hell. Ken, on the other hand, quite likes the idea of sightseeing for a little bit, and for a time it seems like the only problem is having to wait for Harry’s call. When that call comes in, however, the situation changes.

Now, reading that summary, you’ll come across the reason this film won’t be for everyone; it’s not many films that have as a protagonist who has killed a child (even accidentally), and even fewer that try to make said character charismatic. It does not help that for a considerable time Ray acts as though in denial of what he’s done, and it’s a while before he finally breaks down from the burden of it. Of course, this is the kind of film where nobody’s really that good, and it’s not for nothing that the film’s picture of Bruges emphasizes religion and medieval images of apocalypse and sin and punishment. Ray’s obviously putting up a sharp facade, trying to get past what he did by lashing out at everything around him.

Meanwhile, though I’m trying not to spoil much, the film’s world becomes rather sprawling and surreal, as Ray picks fights with tourists and gravitates towards a film production and two marginal figures, a jaded dwarf (Jordan Prentice) and a drug moll (Clémence Poésy) who runs a weird kind of staged mugging operation on the side. This leads to all sorts of side-alleys and cul-de-sacs, though in retrospect things fit together a lot more than they appear to. There’s a scene where the two hitmen are in an art gallery, looking at Hieronymus Bosch’s “Last Judgement”, and not only do specific images from that end up coming into play, Bosch’s style of controlled chaos seems to have been the guide for the entire picture. Despite Ray’s dislike of the place, Bruges comes off rather well, part fairytale village and part medieval nightmare.

The dialogue in this is really sharp; writer/director Martin McDonagh has substantial experience as a playwright, and the banter is sharp and funny enough that even the more predictable “gangster movie” moments are entertaining. But it’s in the moments when he strays off the beaten path of the genre that IN BRUGES really comes into its own. He keeps the cast sharp as well, and the atmosphere is pretty thick on top of everything. I’d say the film’s a bit slow in places, but there’s something so innately pleasurable about the experience of viewing it that it doesn’t matter that it takes its time.

I’m liking IN BRUGES more than I did right after I’d seen it; it’s got substance and a bit of thought behind it, and things seem to fit together better upon reflection. None of this gets in the way of the fun, and the overall impression is one of well-controlled chaos. A nice little film with which to shake off the last chills of winter, and a good sign that the moviegoing year is finally underway.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Grade: A-

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