Friday, April 17, 2009

In Bruges, Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh, Blueprint Pictures, 2008

Who knew Colin Farrell could act when he really wanted to? Cursed with good looks, he oftentimes falls prey to what I call the Brad Pitt Syndrome. Agents, producers, casting, everyone wants to put the pretty boy in their serious drama, but the pretty boy isn't really at home with such starched material. Thus you get wooden, dull performances in flicks that might have flourished with someone else or might never even have gotten made without the marquee name.

Or you get roped into things like 2006's remake of Miami Vice, a waste of time for everyone involved, a paycheck picture the sole saving grace of which is that it allowed Farrell the room to make meatier, more interesting fare such as this. Billed with what must have been some market tested drivel as "Shoot first. Sightsee later," the poster for this film with everyone packing heat makes it look like any other action-spy-thriller melange. This is a complete shame and put me off seeing an otherwise grand movie.

Rescued by an acquaintance loaning us the picture, The Wife and I settled down to watch it. The box misled us in other ways, giving us to believe that the film would be a hysterical romp, a wacky thriller perhaps. Again, while one scene made me laugh for a good solid minute ("Back off, shorty!" "You don't know karate!" for those in the know), it's less of a comedy too.

In fact, I'd be hard pressed to know precisely which category to drop In Bruges, and that may be my favorite genre of all, the unclassifiable something. As British director Peter Brooks observed “The theatre has no categories, it is about life." The same could and should be said for film, but that's an argument I'm unlikely to win against Hollywood and the great gaping maw of consumers of film.

The voice over opening sets us up:

After I killed him, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through - "Get the fuck out of London, you dumb fucks. Get to Bruges." I didn't even know where Bruges fucking was.

We follow two hit men of sorts, as they lie low in Bruges, Belgium, one of the few remaining cities in Europe to retain so much medieval architecture, thus we are given the treat of long canal rides to show off the city's beauty. We also learn from this opening monologue that we are dealing with a foul mouthed Irishman who has apparently botched a job, and that is the film's rub. Ray (Farrell) is haunted by what happened in London while watched over by the older man Ken (Brendan Gleeson, veteran of apparently most Irish/Scottish themed films Americans might have seen in recent years including the writer/director Martin McDonagh's previous film, Six Shooter). Ken, his conscience seemingly unsullied finds the town charming and indulges himself in the life of a tourist.

Ray finds the city a waste of time, and otherwise behaves like a spoiled, bored child being taken to a museum. He loudly shuffles his feet in a church, asking Ken petulantly if he "has to" go and touch a vial supposedly containing drops of Jesus' blood brought back during the Crusades. To this Ken irritatedly replies with much outraged brio: "Do you have to? Of course you don't have to. It's Jesus' fucking blood, isn't it? Of course you don't fucking have to! Of course you don't fucking have to!"

We learn throughout the picture just what it is that Ray did in London, just how badly he messed up his assassination, and what it is Ken and Ray are doing in Bruges. Along the way Ray insults some American tourists and assaults a Canadian couple, hooks up with a Belgian drug dealer on the set of a film, parties with an American midget actor and some prostitutes, shoots a skinhead with a blank, gets arrested on a train, and attempts suicide. All in all your normal tourist activities in Belgium, I would assume.

There is actually some action in the film when Ray and Ken are pitted against their boss, Harry Waters, played with obvious relish by Ralph Fiennes, but it is normal human action, not the superhuman cartoon examples audiences have grown accustomed to in films like the Bourne trilogy. Shot in the leg, a character will bleed and limp and eventually crawl, because that's what a person would do in real life. Writer/director McDonagh has a knack for filming the action close up but without making it helter-skelter and while keeping within the bounds of reality.

Life-sized characters dealing in life-sized way with admittedly larger problems than most of us face. Such a novel concept for a film. I'd say Farrell carried the picture if he wasn't so ably assisted by Gleeson and Fiennes, but in his scenes without either character he is charm itself. His repeated invocation of Vietnam when arguing with Americans (or those he thinks are Americans) is a funny tic, and his logorrheic nervousness when talking to Chloe (Clémence Poésy), the drug dealer lend his rakish character a weird kind of solidity. Neither a dolt, nor a genius, Ray is smarter than he thinks he is, but still not quite smart enough. The film wisely leaves his future in doubt while resolving other plot points.

Both hilariously funny and grippingly dramatic, In Bruges ably and regularly performs the nice trick of shifting gears in a split second. You are laughing one minute, then stunned by what follows, then back to laughing moments later. The first few laughs are uncomfortable ones, the first real moment of drama horrifying even down to a little handwritten note that brought me to the edge of crying, and the film's emotional climax is shocking, original, touching, and a great piece of visual action.

In Bruges might not look like your cup of tea or in fact it might look exactly like it. Either way, you'll be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

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