Friday, February 15, 2008

"In Bruges" -- * * * *

Martin McDonagh has been considered by many one of the best young playwrights of modern times (he's probably my favorite), showing a fresh voice and a flair for violence, dark comedy and twisted manner of storytelling. When making the transition to film, I worried that to make McDonagh suitable for a broader audience, his voice would would be diluted or made more mainstream/palatable to John Q. American. Thankfully, his feature film debut, "In Bruges," retains virtually all of the best aspects of McDonagh's writing, and is, in fact, the first great film of 2008. Insidiously clever without ever shoving your nose in it, and infusing well-worn territory with freshness and exciting flair, this is a film I truly love and loses nothing on repeat viewings, even if (like McDonagh's plays) it might not be everyone's cup 'o tea.

After an assassination of a priest (Ciaran Hinds, currently appearing on Broadway as Satan in "The Seafarer") goes awry, resulting in a little boy getting a bullet through the head, hit men Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out until he can figure out what to do with them. The men are ordered to do said hiding out in Bruges. Ray, narrating, comforts us by letting us know he initially didn't even know where Bruges was either. He helpfully offers up, "It's in Belgium." Over the course of the first forty minutes of the film, Ray (wracked with guilt) and Ken (who's genuinely enjoying the trip) basically just wait for Harry's phone call as they see the sights, meet with locals and tourists alike, and contemplate what they've done and what they must do. What takes place beyond that point would be criminal to give away, but as anyone familiar with Mr. McDonagh's works knows, things are probably not going to turn out okay for anyone. Redemption rarely comes for his characters, and if it does, it's usually through death.

McDonagh's plays (particularly "The Pillowman" and "The Beauty Queen of Leenane") have been cited for their persistent tonal shifts, and while they're present in "Bruges" as well, he does a wonderful job here deftly balancing the humor, violence and emotion, often during the same scene. The dialogue is frequently hilarious, as is McDonagh's predilection towards the amusingly low-brow. He's just as prone to witty lines (Ray comments, "I grew up in Dublin, I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn't, so it doesn't,") as he is to broad comedy, like a memorable sequence where a fat American tourist repeatedly struggles to catch a dodgy Ray after he calls him and his family elephants.

However, it's surprising how genuinely affecting the emotional elements of the film are, particularly Ray's anguish over accidentally killing the little boy in the church. For a guy who has fairly terrible social skills and isn't very nice to many people he meets, his increasingly suicidal nature and frequents retreats to the bathroom to cry only serve to humanize him and draw us in emotionally. The ending especially, which I won't reveal, resonates rather strongly, particularly in what it means in reference to what's come before it. The humor and the violence may be what most people remember about "In Bruges," but it's the emotional depth that really enriches it.

There's been much talk/debate about the film's "offensive" content, particularly the supposedly racist/homophobic/sexist/intolerant nature of some of the dialogue, and McDonagh's decision to show the actual bullet hole in the boy's head, rather than mere suggestion. There's numerous references to race, "poofs" and other denegrations, with the most memorable being Ray's reference to something being as unbalanced as "a big fucking fat, retarded black girl on a see-saw with a midget" Not only does this sort of language give us an idea of the sort of men these guys are, it's also a fairly decent representation of how certain type of people actually talk, as well as it's just fucking funny. As for the bullet hole, I think it's fairly important for us to have a jarring image planted in our heads to recall every time Ray recoils at what he's done. With just a vague hint or suggestion, we might not get the full scope of what's taken place.

Our three leading men are all excellent in different ways. Yes, they perfectly deliver the dialogue, making very carefully scripted cleverness appear natural, but the real achievement is how complete the performances are. It's easy to imagine these men simply being delivery systems for Mr. McDonagh's witty words, but thanks to Farrell, Gleeson and Fiennes, they always feel fleshed out and it's easy to imagine their lives outside the events of the film.

Farrell has long been established as a pretty boy, initially declared the "it" boy and never living up to it. And beyond his leaked homemade porn tape, he's never particularly impressed me in much. But now, after seemingly going on a box office and critical decline, he's had to step up his game and it appears to be for the best. In last month's "Cassandra's Dream" (which, while not great, was unfairly shit on), he played a similarly guilt-ridden character, and he's really excellent in both films. However, he manages to be very, very funny and enormously sad-- often simultaneously-- here. It's a strange thing with popular actors, that we seemingly only get a look at their real talents as their public starts to turn against them a little, but perhaps it's just the impetus needed.

Gleeson, on the other hand, is more proven and established as an actor, so it might go without saying that he gives what may be the best performance in the film. He's really excellent here as a man who knows all the bad things he's done, and has to reconcile with the fact that he's killed people, but ultimately is a good man at heart and wants to do whatever he can to ensure Ray isn't consumed by what he's done. His final scene in the film is particularly well-played, getting across a lot of information with minimal amount of dialogue. Gleeson gives a rich, complex performance, but he's surprisingly just as adept when he's asked to be funny. His scene on the phone with Harry, trying to cover for an absent Ray, is truly hilarious, as is his interplay with Farrell and a particularly memorable look on his face when he pops up in the background during a bar scene. You'll know the one when you see it.

Out of everyone, Fiennes appears to be having the most fun, and is arguably the most fun to watch. He isn't actually seen until after the one-hour mark, but he's clearly having a blast here. It's apparent the extent to which he's savoring the quick, profane dialogue ("You retract the bit about my cunt fucking kids!") and the operatic heights to which he gets to play this principled killer who looks as if he could literally tear into anyone who dares to confront him. Fiennes is an established, respected actor, but dare I say, he's also frequently bland and none too interesting to watch. As Harry, he's amazingly enjoyable to watch, and gives definition, principles and shades of grey to a character who could've just as easily been played as one-note. Harry's a man you certainly don't want to fuck with, and serves as our "villain," but he's actually not an all-around bad guy and has more complexity than he may appear to at the outset.

Though McDonagh has directed shorts before (he won an Oscar for his short, "Six Shooter," also starring Gleeson), this makes for a startlingly accomplished feature-film debut; some of the shots here are really excellent, and the way certain sequences are staged are astoundingly clever. But what's most impressive about "In Bruges," at least to me, is the nearly perfect structure. The film is established very clearly as one thing, and takes us by surprise as it smoothly shifts its shape numerous times as it goes on (the opening credits set to somber music and church architecture don't prepare you for what's to come). This is to the credit of McDonagh's screenplay as much as his direction. The script isn't just excellent, clever, quotable dialogue, it's also impressive how economical it is. Every seemingly unimportant-- but still funny, enriching or entertaining-- scene serves a later purpose in ways that aren't obviously foreshadowed; Ken trying to dispose of excess coins/change pays off in a particularly effective manner. There's no excess fat here-- every sequence serves either a narrative or thematic purpose.

The film successfully avoids the playwright's curse; yes, the dialogue is excellent, but it's never the whole show. Whether cleverly acknowledging the genre expectations ("Don't be stupid, this is the shootout.") or reveling in its surreal nature ("They're filmin' midgets!"), the dialogue is just as important here as the visual cues, and I, for one, didn't expect as much action as there was. A superb blending of genres that's often howlingly funny, enormously sad and startlingly violent within the same sequence, "In Bruges" is the best feature-film debut in quite some time. I, personally, don't quite comprehend why such a strong piece of work is being released in the wasteland of February, but at least it'll be allowed more of an opportunity to stand out from the wretched pack. It's not often you get weight and substance from a film that features a racist dwarf getting karate chopped, but then, this isn't a film that cares about convention.

"In Bruges" expands to 112 theaters in major markets today, and expands further around the country over the course of the next two weeks.


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