It seems a tad ironic to say that a gangster film also serves as a character study—a lack-of-character study, maybe? But In Bruges—tellingly, written and directed by a playwright, Martin McDonagh—is indeed a character study, and a good one—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 city'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 Ray's head in spite of his misery over the botched job. And when the boss finally calls, with "further instructions," the news isn'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, too—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. He's an odd mentor figure, to be sure—wisdom and veteran experience overlaid with veritable mountains of denial—but he's all Ray's got. And Ken has a hidden moral compass, too—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 showdown—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 that's wholly entertaining on both a comic and dramatic level, morally complicated and thought-provoking all at the same time. By film's end, though, it'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?