It’s rarer than Halley’s comet for the cliquey Sundance Film Festival to choose a first-time filmmaker’s flick to headline their kick off their opening night. But when that newbie writer-director is Martin McDonagh—the savagely brilliant playwright who was the first author since Shakespeare to have four productions running simultaneously in London—such honors aren’t unexpected. Last year, he wrote and directed his first short film . . . and it won an Oscar. And this year, he’s given us In Bruges, a film that’s so bloody wonderful (in both meanings of the word) that all other movies this year might as well go straight to video.
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell star as Ken and Ray, two Irish hitman forced to hideout in Bruges, Belgium after their latest slaying. The well-preserved medieval hamlet is a frisson of spires and cobblestone, “a fucking fairy tale town,” says the agreeable Ken, whose blunt potato face has a grounded calmness that comes from killing so much that it’s little different than punching a timeclock. But while Ken is as content and sanguine as a swan to glide around Bruges’ scenic canals and scale the twisty stairs of the 250-foot bell tower that for centuries has looked over man’s problems with a shrug, Ray is jumping out of his skin. Farrell’s finally finding roles that suit him after years of shoving himself into Alexander’s armor and Miami Vice’s white suits. His Ray is a twitchy, sullen child with no more control over hiding his emotions than a puppy. (The forehead muscles that control Farrell’s eyebrows must be evolution’s next step for actors.) Not that he’s trying to hide his dislike of slumbering Bruges. Instead of huffing his way up the tower’s endless steps, he’d rather tell an American family in the downstairs courtyard that they’re too fat to even try it.
But 10 minutes in when it seems McDonagh’s penned another Guy Ritchie bullets-and-braggadocio comedy (an impression hawked by the moronic trailer), Ray remembers what he did that sent them to Bruges, something Ken alluded to earlier with only a pointed shrug that silenced Ray’s gripes and blanched his face white. Killing a priest was the least of it. And so this riotous comedy slips off its slick simplicity and cuts open the mens’ consciences as they realize they’re living in one of the Hieronymus Bosch horrorscapes of demons and flayed flesh hanging on the walls of the Belgian museums where the eyes of the sinners—like Farrell’s—plead for mercy. Fragile and unforgiven, his best hope is to try to shake it off. Walking through the town at night, he spots the film crew of a European curio and Ray perks up with excitement. “They’re shooting something! They’re shooting midgets!” he beams. An American dwarf named Jimmy, to be precise and that actor Jordan Prentice’s caustic, racist, drug-addled, whore-mongering little person isn’t a caricature is a great achievement of McDonagh’s script. Better still is its seamlessness where every joke or supporting character from the sloe-eyed, narrow-shouldered Belgian (Clémence Poésy) Ray takes out to dinner to the insufferable bell tower ticket taker (Rudy Blomme) is fully bloomed.
Ray and Ken’s boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) at first seems as unknowable and omnipotent as Godot. But once he’s pulled into the mix, it’s clear why the stolid Ken lives in fear of his disapproval. What’s at stake is more than the perfect quip (though there’s plenty of those); these men live and kill by codes of loyalty, truth, and fair play, even if their moral compasses don’t always point north. And when the laughs dry up in the third act, McDonagh leaves us staring at the desperation of ugly men who want to leave the world something beautiful as they race around a gorgeous village that turns sinister in the shadows.