Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s debut feature follows two hitmen– Ray and Ken –as they hide out in Bruges after a job gone wrong. Deftly blending humour, action and emotion Martin McDonagh subverted the gangster genre to achieve the freshest take on the tired tropes since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Ray: Bruges is a shithole.
Ken: Bruges is not a shithole.
Ray: Bruges is a shithole.
Ken: Ray, we’ve only just got off the fucking train. Could we reserve judgement on it till we’ve seen the fucking place?
Played with composed confidence by Brendan Gleeson, Ken is the older father figure to Colin Farrell’s younger Ray. On his first hit Ray was sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to murder a priest, but a stray bullet found the head of a little boy and the two are now hiding out in the fairy-tale town of Bruges; sightseeing, harassing tourists, and seeking redemption. The two Irish actors bounce off each other effortlessly, Gleeson’s more mature Ken can appreciate the sixteenth century architecture and romanticism of the Belgian city, whereas Colin Farrell’s impatient and impulsive Ray is looking to drink and date while wrestling with his demons.
Matched only by his brother – John Michael McDonagh – Martin McDonagh’s unique brand of black comedy sees him tread the Shakespearian tightrope of comedy and tragedy to have us laughing one second, and crying the next. The incisive, idiosyncratic dialogue fizzes and sparkles, is testament to the writer/director’s origins in theatre, and produces the best performance of Colin Farrell’s career. Here the Irish actor’s twitchy, childlike take on Ray means we genuinely care about, even like, a character who’s committed an atrocity, albeit accidentally, but still wholly consequent to his immoral line of work.
Ken: The boy’s suicidal, Harry. He’s a walking dead man. He keeps going on about hell and purgatory and…
Steeped in Religious symbolism, from the Groeningemuseum paintings such as ‘Death and the Miser’, ‘The Flaying of Sisamnes’ and most significantly Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Last Judgement’; to the Boschian film sequence being shot with its dwarf star Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), the medieval city of Bruges represents the two characters’ purgatory as they await their own Last Judgement. Ken, who enjoys the rich heritage of the locale, is close to heaven, but for Ray the ubiquitous chocolate and ‘gay beer’ is his idea of hell. This echoes the internal conflict Martin McDonagh experienced himself when he visited the town four years prior to making In Bruges, a jaunt which provided the inspiration for the film.
Harry: Ken, if I’d killed a little kid, accidentally or otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought twice, Id have killed myself on the fucking spot! On the fucking spot! I’d have stuck the gun in my mouth on the fucking spot!
The bleakly poetic resolution of In Bruges is one of cinema’s best climaxes in the last decade. Crime kingpin Harry, so adamant in his principles and the necessity for Ray’s punishment for killing the young boy, ends up accidentally shooting a young boy himself. However, in a true Boschian twist, it’s not a young boy, but Jimmy the dwarf dressed in a child’s school uniform for a scene in the film he’s shooting, unrecognisable in death as his head’s been blown clean off. Here Martin McDonagh nimbly ties up the threads of Jimmy and the film within a film theme, which seemed to previously feature for absurdest comic relief and some slick meta references, but now have real weight and tangible consequence on both the plot and the characters.
As a man of his word, a gangster who adheres by his own strict moral code, Harry puts his gun in his mouth and blows his brains out. The film closes on Ray being rushed into an ambulance and an ambiguous end that neither confirms nor denies his death.
Ray: (voice-over) But then, like a flash, it came to me, and I realised, ‘Fuck, man, maybe that’s what Hell is. The entire rest of eternity spent in fucking Bruges.’ And I really really hoped I wouldn’t die… I really really hoped I wouldn’t die.