In Bruges (2008)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #558

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: January 17, 2008 (Sundance Film Festival)
Sub-Genre: Neo-Noir/Black Comedy
Country of Origin: United Kingdom, United States
Budget: $15,000,000
Box Office: $34,100,000
Running Time: 107 minutes
Director: Martin McDonagh
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin
Screenplay: Martin McDonagh
Special Effects: Mark Holt
Cinematography: Eigil Bryld
Score: Carter Burwell
Editing: Jon Gregory
Studios: Blueprint Pictures, Film4 Productions, Focus Features, Scion Films
Distributors: Universal Studios, Focus Features
Stars: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Jérémie Renier, Jordan Prentice, Eric Godon, Zeljko Ivanek, Thekla Reuten, Susan Ateh

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Suggested Audio Candy:

Carter Burwell Soundtrack Suite

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Being a hitman isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While it may seem like a cushy profession, in fact it is anything but. Consider the facts: you spend most of your time alone, unable to head down to the local tavern and bitch about your boss to the fellow bar flies, and the margin for error is positively non-existent. Should you work in a grocery store and accidentally misprice the pickled onions then, chances are, you’ll get away with a slap on the wrists and, at the very worst, have the difference deducted from your next wage packet. However, mess up a hit and you’ll spend the remainder of your short life paranoid and looking over your shoulder nervously. Even if you’re charmed enough to survive thirty years in the hitman game, your reward is unlikely to be a gold watch and matching cufflinks but, instead, a bullet to the back to the head as you’re deemed no longer necessary and put out of your misery like a race horse with a sprained ankle. Movies may tend to glorify the lifestyle but, by all accounts, being a hitman sucks.

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Should you be looking for further proof, then look no further than fresh-faced trigger man Ray (Colin Farrell). He inexplicably managed to screw up his last hit (which also happened to be his very first) after being tasked with dispatching a Catholic priest and accidentally killing a young boy in the process by way of ricochet. Whilst not the best start to his career as a hired gun, Ray appears to have been looked on favorably as he is packed off to the picturesque historic city of Bruges, Belgium to lay low for a few days and regroup until further notice.

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His boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) has even been kind enough to pay for his mentor and friend Ken (Brendan Gleeson) to accompany him on his trip and it looks like Ray may well have dodged a bullet after his wretched start as a hitman. However, while this provides the young upstart with an opportunity for sightseeing and reflection, unbeknownst to him his ticket is destined to be one-way.

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On arrival, the two men have drastically different opinions of their holiday destination. Being considerably the more mature of the pair, Ken is in awe of his fairytale surroundings and keen to scrutinize the city further, taking in a little medieval culture and getting a feel for this idyllic place. However, young Ray is far less enthused and finds it all painfully lackluster from the very moment he steps off the train. He makes no bones about his frustration to his associate and is desperate to explore Bruges further for altogether different reasons. Cooped up together in a poky hotel room while they await further instructions, he is restless and twitchy, much to Ken’s exasperation. Moreover, he is wracked with guilt over his botched inception and unable to cope with his culpability for snuffing out a young life in its prime.

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“Two manky hookers and a racist dwarf. I think I’m heading home.”

Eventually, more through feeling worn down than anything else, Ken agrees to allow his associate to embrace his wanderlust and spread his wings some, just to get him out of his hair for a few hours. It’s perhaps the first sign of a smile from Ray and that smile only widens as he ambles aimlessly around after dark Bruges and happens across a film shoot. Here he meets a couple of particularly colorful characters. The first is Jimmy (Jordan Prentice) a drug-addled American dwarf actor with a severe case of small man syndrome who is a massive source of amusement to Ray. The other, and far more fetching, is Chloë (Clémence Poésy), a local drug dealer masquerading as a production assistant and his prayers appear to have been answered. The pair strike up a rapport in no time and Chloë agrees to a dinner date, leaving Ray feeling buoyant and starting to reevaluate his surroundings.

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“My date involved two instances of extreme violence, one instance of her hand on my cock and my finger up her thing which lasted all too briefly – isn’t that always the way? – , one instance of me stealing five grams of very high-quality cocaine and one instance of me blinding a poofy little skinhead: so all in all… my evening pretty much balanced out, fine.”

Their date is nothing if not eventful but, despite the course of true love not running quite as smooth as he’d hoped, Ray is besotted and it appears that his feelings are reciprocated. However, back at the hotel, Ken receives the call he has been dreading from Harry and is informed of the real reason why he has been sent here to babysit his inexperienced friend. Suddenly Bruges is looking far less inviting.

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With love’s young dream on one side and the worries of the world now squarely rested on Ken’s broad shoulders, things begin to turn about-face. It’s an interesting swing in dynamic and the first clue that we are about to enter considerably darker territory. With Ray now snapping at his ankles like an excitable terrier, it is Ken who wears the long face as, irritant or no irritant, he has a soft spot for his less-travelled comrade and has no great desire to burst his bubble.

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“An Uzi? I’m not from South Central Los fucking Angeles. I didn’t come here to shoot twenty black ten-year olds in a drive-by. I want a normal gun for a normal person.”

The final act finally introduces us to kingpin Harry and it is here that we meet and greet one of the most glorious characters ever conceived in my opinion. Harry is a bad man, make no bones about that, and the very last person on earth that you would wish to be trifling with. However, beneath all that bravado and cold calculation is an immensely likeable fellow who makes up for what he sorely lacks in goodwill with integrity and honor.

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The shit is invariably going to hit the fan and, when it does, Harry is likely to be the one wiping his ass as it oscillates but not before he too gets to sit down with a lager and take in the sights of a place he has a deep affection for. It’s perfectly poised and, the comedy, of the very blackest variety.

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“Harry, let’s face it. And I’m not being funny. I mean no disrespect, but you’re a cunt. You’re a cunt now, and you’ve always been a cunt. And the only thing that’s going to change is that you’re going to be an even bigger cunt. Maybe have some more cunt kids.”

All three men give wonderful accounts of themselves and their exchanges are way beyond priceless. Farrell, who is a far more accomplished actor than his reputation suggests, is in his element here and has the anxious Irishman routine well and truly down to pat. Initially prickly, his willingness to become a martyr for the cause endears him to us endlessly as the story unfurls. Gleeson is never less than a joy and provides the ideal foil and we really feel for Ken as he wears his burden openly and is every bit as tortured as his partner in crime. Meanwhile, Fiennes is simply off the chart as cockney chief Harry and, while we should be begging for his comeuppance, the overriding desire is for the trio to work through their differences and find a compromise that we know only too well isn’t likely to be on the cards.

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That In Bruges is Martin McDonagh’s first full-length feature is positively astounding as he shows all the posture of a seasoned veteran and doesn’t put a solitary foot wrong. His screenplay is ingenious, literally peppered with laugh out loud moments, and provides infinite gristle for his three leads to masticate. As for Bruges itself, despite Ray’s insistence that it is an absolute shit hole, you may find yourselves booking a day trip come the end credits and director if photography Eigil Bryld does an exquisite job of making it both warm and welcoming while, in turn, chilly and inhospitable. It walks a fine line between breathless suspense and pitch black humor but McDonagh proves himself more than up to the balancing act and, on this evidence, has earned himself the keys to the city.

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However, what makes In Bruges second ony to The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men in my cinematic highlights from 2009 is that, like head honcho Harry, once we dig beneath the brash veneer, there’s a momentous heart beating beneath. It is both poignant and deeply tragic, focusing on morality and ethics, and absolutely chock-full of irony. Its protagonists may be cold-hearted contract killers, but they effortlessly evoke our empathy and make it nigh-on impossible not to come away affected and enriched. McDonagh has since gone on to prove that this was no fluke, with both The Guard and Seven Psychopaths earning him no end of accolades. But it is here, in the idyllic city of Bruges, that I implore you to commence your road trip.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

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