Expectations can be deceptive; there’s few more overdone clichés that the pair of bickering hit-men, done to death in the wake of Pulp Fiction and the refuge of many a hopeless screenwriter. A great writer, however, can re-invigorate any trope, so step forward Martin McDonough, a theatre scribe who made the jump into movies with real success with In Bruges. Bruges is a well-preserved medieval town in Belgium, an unlikely setting for a violent gangster comedy, but that’s not the only surprise up the film-maker’s sleeve.
We start with an unpleasant bang; Ray (Colin Farrell) kills a priest in a church, but accidentally shoots a child dead in the process. His mentor Ken (Brendan Gleeson) spirits him off to sleepy Bruges, where a tourist trade gives them cover until the matter can be resolves. Ray is suicidal, but finds solace by infiltrating a film-crew shooting a homage to Don’t Look Now, complete with a drug-addled man affected by dwarfism. Ray falls for dealer Chloe (Clémence Poésy), who is working a scam that backfires spectacularly when her John is shot in the face with blanks by Ray. The two men pass the days anxiously, awaiting the arrival of ruthless boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and a reckoning that’s brutal, violent and defies prediction.
In Bruges has a great ending; you simply won’t see it coming, since there’s no reason to expect the fictional film’s leading actor to be wearing a school-uniform, or the events that his costume triggers. Bruges is hell, or at least purgatory, and death is a release; the surreal nature of the backdrop is a major player here. The acting is top notch, but it’s the script that knocks In Bruges into the top drawer. McDonough’s use of language is astonishingly supple, and foreshadows his deft, colloquial work in Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
I expected to hate In Bruges when I first saw it; gangster comedies rarely find any kind of purchase. But In Bruges turns our notions inside out; it’s a profane, shocking film that never lingers on violence, but exhumes humanity from lost soul characters who find that nothing in their life makes as much sense as the way they exit this world. Smart, thoughtful and multi-layered, In Bruges is a wild vacation that any broad-minded cineaste should book themselves in for.