by Jef Burnham
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Before winning an Academy Award for his short film, Six Shooter, in 2006, playwright Martin McDonagh had already won two Olivier Awards (for his plays The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore) and been nominated for four Tony Awards. Now, with his first feature-length film, In Bruges, McDonagh proves he is also a fully capable filmmaker, able to tackle a myriad of genres simultaneously.
Cinematic idolization of gangsters such as Tony Montana and the Corleones has inspired many filmmakers to follow suit, portraying the mafia lifestyle as something to be respected. However, this story of two Irish hitmen hiding out in a Belgian tourist town is another in the recent trend of films unglorifying mob behavior. Ray (Colin Farrell), a first-time hitman, is attempting to cope with inadvertently shooting an innocent bystander during his first hit. Although the film is as comic as its trailers in its portrayal of mobsters as irredeemable screw-ups, McDonagh skillfully examines the Catholic themes of penance and redemption; and he handles the incidents of extreme violence and murder in his film with great respect to the audience as well as the value of human life, depicting murder as gruesome, irrational and always unpleasant.
The darker aspects of the film were perfectly emphasized by the prolific composer Carter Burwell’s score, whose credits include upwards of 70 films, including all of the Coen Brothers’ films. The score provides McDonagh with the perfect means of transition between the dramatic and the comedic elements, but the most affecting piece of music in the film is “On Raglan Road” by The Dubliners, played during one character’s final moments.
Colin Farrell is joined by Brendan Gleeson, who also starred in Six Shooter, as Ken, Ray’s mentor in contract killing. They are sent to Bruges by their foul-mouthed boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), which is known for being the most well-preserved medieval town in Belgium. Ken has a fine time seeing the sites, but Ray is less than enthused. “If I had grown up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so… it doesn’t.” Luckily for Ray, who has a bizarre obsession with midgets and midget suicide, he discovers a film being shot in Bruges, starring a racist, American dwarf named Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), who predicts a race war between whites and blacks. While on the set of the film, Ray also meets the beautiful, Chloe, who may be a drug dealer. And these are but a handful of their exploits.
Ken and Ray both struggle to reconcile having murdered someone for money with living a decent life. Ken tries to passively guide Ray through this, the most difficult time in his career as a hitman with limited results from the pessimistic youth. Ken and Harry are both men with high principles of honor, and though Ken has faith in the possibility of Ray’s redemption, in Harry there is no forgiveness. The film culminates in a frenetic shootout through the streets of the most well-preserved medieval city in Europe. As town squares transform into back alleys in a blur, we find ourselves caught in a bizarre recreation of a medieval vision of the end times.
In Bruges is scheduled for limited release on February 8th.
Jef Burnham is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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