In Bruges is an incisive, darkly funny character study of small-time gangsters
by Mike Gibson
It seems a tad ironic to say that a gangster film also serves as a character studyâ"a lack-of-character study, maybe? But In Brugesâ"tellingly, written and directed by a playwright, Martin McDonaghâ"is indeed a character study, and a good oneâ"a darkly comic fathoming of the wounded souls of a couple of small-time British thugs, relegated to Belgium for convalescence in the wake of a hit gone wrong.
Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) have just finished the errant hit when the movie opens, though the reason the job went sour remains a mystery for nearly half the film. Their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes, in full-on vicious heavy mode) orders them to head for Bruges, and wait for further instruction. In Bruges, the duo proceed to wander and sight-see, pondering the apparent meaninglessness of their misspent lives against the ornate backdrop of the cityâ’s famously well-preserved medieval architecture.
There are complications, of course, not to mention a menagerie of weird characters who seem even more out of place than Ray and Ken in the middle of this singularly historic milieu: an eccentric Russian arms dealer, a dwarf on Ketamine, and a pretty blonde dope peddler (Clemence Poesy) who turns Rayâ’s head in spite of his misery over the botched job. And when the boss finally calls, with â“further instructions,â” the news isnâ’t good, eventually necessitating Harry himself to leave for Bruges and take matters in hand.
But the soul of In Bruges lies in the banter and shared misadventure of Ray and Ken, callow youth and veteran killer, waxing thug-philosophic as they wander cobbled city streets. It therefore falls on Gleeson and Farrell to deliver the goods, performance-wise, and they do so admirably and so unself-consciously that we never stop to think that In Bruges might qualify as anything so stultifying as a buddy picture.
Farrell can be an unlikable screen presence at times, when the rude side of his rude-boy charm becomes too overbearing. Here, though, he shades his character with humility and even a certain innocence to balance his bouts of skirt-chasing and cocksure hoodlum posturing. And Ray is deeply troubled, tooâ"conscience-stricken, we learn as the movie wears on. Ray may not be the sharpest knife in the set, but he is possessed of a raw nobility and an inchoate sense of morality that struggle for daylight, buried beneath layers of callousness, hard luck, and pain. In Farrell, we see that struggle writ large, in his speech, in his mien, in his eyes.
Gleeson, with his weathered hang-dog countenance, slips almost too easily into the role of Ken, a career killer who has settled comfortably, even amiably, into a casual acceptance of his lot. Heâ’s an odd mentor figure, to be sureâ"wisdom and veteran experience overlaid with veritable mountains of denialâ"but heâ’s all Rayâ’s got. And Ken has a hidden moral compass, tooâ"a pretty good one, in fact, seemingly none the worse for wear in spite of so many years of disuse.
Some of the character study naturally falls by the wayside when, later in the film, Harry asserts himself and heads out for a showdownâ"recalling that In Bruges is still a gangster film, after all, and a better-than-tolerably good one, at that. The violence is infrequent, spread judiciously throughout the film. But when the shooting starts, the resulting mayhem is jarring and final, perhaps to remind us that for all their bantering and unlikely camaraderie, Ray and Ken have chosen a path that leads to no good end.
First-time director McDonagh deserves kudos for crafting a film thatâ’s wholly entertaining on both a comic and dramatic level, morally complicated and thought-provoking all at the same time. By filmâ’s end, though, itâ’s hard to figure what message he would have us take away from our theater seat, such is the confounding nature of the violent, crushingly ironic finale. But then again, Ray and Ken live in a world where there are no easy answers. Why should the answers come any easier for us, as we watch each of them reckon with the fallout from a lifetime of bad choices?
Why did anyone think this was a good idea? Take one part earnest Iraq War polemic, add a Cloverfield-style â“found footageâ” conceit, and then hand it to Brian frickinâ’ De Palma, a writer/director whose work is not usually noted for its nimbleness or sincerity. The worst part is that a teenage Iraqi girl was raped and murdered, and this is the memorial she gets.
The events depicted are based in factâ"a squad of U.S. soldiers who let the madness of a war zone go too far and took it out on young Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi. And the found-footage thing is actually a good idea: These days our vision of the world, literally, is assembled from so many new and myriad sourcesâ"web video, surveillance cams, documentary footageâ"that it only makes sense to use that to tell a story. But â“squanderâ” isnâ’t a strong enough word for what De Palma does here. The squad members arenâ’t characters, theyâ’re an almost complete set of war-movie clichÃ©s: Pvt. Sociopath, Pvt. Easily Led Thug, Pvt. Wears Glasses and Reads, Pvt. Secretly Decent, and camcorder-armed would-be film student Pvt. Talkative. The dialogue stiffly swipes at themes and plot points rather than ringing true as actual human conversation, and the no-name cast does it few additional favors. Left to his own devices, the director might have made the found footage work, but since he won funding for the film from HDNet, the film had to be shot in super-gloss HD, making the kind of shaky-cam patrol footage or grainy night vision look suspiciously slick and well-lit. Disbelief remains firmly in place throughout until a photo montage of dead Iraqis, black bars over their eyes, brings this farce to a bitter end.
Perhaps the weirdest aspect of Redacted is that De Palma made this movie already in 1989 as Casualties of War. He should have quit while he was ahead. â" Lee Gardner
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