By Rick Barton © Focus Features In Bruges (R)
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes, Clemence Posey
B+ When most Americans think of the British, they think of good manners, quiet gentility and general civility. An example of British bad humor would be tart grousing about the length of a queue. Nastiness is limited to the divorce trials of Charles and Diana, and Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. Challenging such concepts are distinctly British gangster films like Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast, which mix sledgehammer violence with a dash of leavening black humor. Add to that list writer/director Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, an ink-black action comedy with elements of character development that American films in a comparable genre seldom bother with. Set in the gorgeous, medieval Belgian city, In Bruges is the story of a couple of hitmen on the lam in a town of canals, cathedrals and meandering cobblestone streets that tourists inevitably compare to Amsterdam and Venice. One of the gangsters, the burly, thuggish Ken (Brendan Gleeson), is almost instantly charmed by his new environs. He starts with a canal ride and advances quickly to devouring guidebooks about the city's vast array of charms. Ken's younger partner Ray (Colin Farrell) is not as quickly seduced. An Irishman by birth, he brags of being from Dublin and thus unimpressed with Bruges. We quickly discover that Ray's inability to yield to the allure of his hideout is the product of gnawing guilt, a sense of damning sin that is twisted in an irony of almost ludicrous proportions.
Ken and Ray have been sent to Belgium by their London crime boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who has booked the two men a room at a nice bed and breakfast and ordered them to wait there until he sends them further instructions. Ken and Ray are not natural tourists, but in their required idleness, Ken finds a serenity and curiosity he has not before known. Ray, in contrast, finds only long hours for his inner turmoil to fester. Harry hired Ray to murder a priest, a crime that doesn't pester him at all. He doesn't know why Harry wanted the priest killed but presumes the priest must have done something to have deserved it. Unfortunately, one of Ray's bullets went through the priest's body and into the head of a 5-year-old boy. And that accident, Ray is convinced, will hurtle him through the gates of hell.
After an American movie season featuring the psychopaths in No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, in the domain of Tony Soprano, we are little prepared for the killers we meet in Bruges. I am not sure the film submits that they are redeemed, but it demands that in their own twisted ways they are men of conscience and principle. Their universes do not stop where their own skin touches air. Harry is perhaps the most vicious of the three, but he is a dedicated husband and father, a violent man who can nonetheless apologize to his wife for barking at her. He is devoted to his children, several of whom appear to be adopted, and regards himself to be a protector of children in general. Harry isn't happy that Ray has shot a child, even though he dispatched Ray on the mission that resulted in the death. Yet, even in his self-righteous anger at Ray, Harry displays a Daliesque dollop of humanity. Harry is determined that Ray be punished but wants to treat him to an inspiring vacation first. And central among the picture's tangled ironies is how much Ray hates the experience Harry intends as a kindness.
Ken, too, develops in surprising dimension. He is almost teddy-bear endearing in his sudden hunger for culture. More important, he is a man who is willing to stand outside his own self-interest in the consideration of his relations with others. He is loyal to Harry and would never oppose him. And yet his affection for Ray is such that he's willing to risk Harry's wrath by trying to protect Ray from Harry's 'justice."
In the final analysis, for all its spattered blood and calculated quirkiness (minor characters include a dwarf with an appetite for prostitutes and a schoolgirl-beautiful blonde who deals hard drugs), In Bruges is a movie about learning lessons. Each of the three main figures learns something important about himself. The question is whether each learns that lesson too late.