The Reeler


February 7, 2008

In Bruges

McDonagh's gangster goofballs bring verve to a film that doesn't quite deserve it

Morally conflicted gangsters need redemption less than the benighted micro-genre they've worn out: Pulp Fiction's pop-philosophical climax spawned innumerable imitations, reaching its nadir in last year's loathsome Smokin' Aces. How, then, to begin rehabilitation for the quirky, conflicted gun-for-hire? Far away, hopefully, from the umpteenth iteration of the really bad idea that nutty assassin films are a great forum for serious moral issues. (Don't see the problem? How about an Iraq dramedy with quirky soldiers discussing morality between collateral damage incidents? Anyone?)

But Martin McDonagh's In Bruges comes as close to redeeming Tarantino's inadvertent spawn as possible, even if the goofy self-parody of the Transporter series' self-mocking ethics is still preferable. Like good stand-up comics with mediocre material, his central trio -- Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes -- bring energy and verve to a film that almost doesn't deserve it.

The first shots are of gargoyles and other Gothic church grotesques. Lugubrious music churns. "After I killed him," Ray (Farrell) flatly explains in voice-over, "I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off my hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and went home to await instructions." All the clichés are here: the juxtaposition of the life-altering and the mundane; a quotidian pop-culture reference to satiate mental fast-food cravings; pseudo-detachment from the most serious of events; and fractured chronology revealing key inciting incidents halfway through. More bad signifiers are on the way: there's much talk of Heaven and Hell and a lengthy discussion of the procedural details of Judgment Day conducted in front of a nightmarish Flemish depiction. Also dwarves. This is a Sundance movie.

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Ray's instructions are to proceed to the Belgian town of Bruges with his partner Ken (Gleeson) and await further instruction from their florid, cockney boss Harry (Fiennes, giving a fine comic turn that adds to his collection of British stereotypes after his vainglorious explorer voice-over in Wallace and Gromit). Ken loves Bruges -- guidebook in hand, he sails the canals and scopes out every last spire. Ray kills time by boozing and baiting morbidly obese American tourists ("Just try not to say anything too loud or crass," he advises one). When killing time, they're a fun duo: Gleeson conveys soulfulness without straining, while Farrell has the twitchy, ferret-like tics and needlessly offensive speech of a perpetual cokehead (at one point, he makes an analogy between two unequal forces represented by "a big fat fucking retarded black girl on a seesaw -- opposite a dwarf!"). Then he actually does coke and you see the difference.

Resurrecting a burned-out career with a "small" movie is a hackneyed gesture, but Farrell succeeds anyway; in the Indiewood world of the morose and taciturn, he's a welcome burst of comic energy. So it is with the film: McDonagh includes one too many crucifixes for my comfort, but when the movie steers clear of self-seriousness, it's surprisingly enjoyable. (Even the rote anti-Americanisms build into a clever bait-and-switch about Canadians.) Unfortunately, rather than evade clichés, In Bruges only seeks niftier ways of presenting them. Like Tarantino's work (or Altman's, or P.T. Anderson's, or that of a half-dozen other filmmakers), bit players emerge as plot fulcrums; unlike those films, In Bruges seems to be aiming for screwball reconciliation and genuine moral rehabilitation. Ray is headed for a clean new start on life; Ken is at peace with himself; even the fierce Harry learns to compromise his macho ethics and embrace friendship. (Twists compel vagueness.)

Ultimately, McDonagh pulls all the predictable punches to get to the preordained nihilistic conclusions that life is meaningless, moral codes don't hold up in a godless universe and Catholic guilt and death are both eternal. At least the utter badness of Sundance movies isn't on that list of absolutes: if In Bruges makes good on its cult hit status, worse things have happened.

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