Remember Us As Lost Violent Souls
Spouting gore and profanities onto Silent Night snowfall, devoid of the wit of Ealing’s brilliant crime comedies, In Bruges represents this age’s in-your-face underworld irony. Like the also British Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, it will probably hold today’s audience attention despite a thinness and an ending that, if complicated, is apparent too early. It seems unfair to compare most any movie to Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers or to Touch of Evil, but this one begs for such through, for example, specific reference to that latter, also 1950s Welles thriller.
Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s film is set and filmed in the medieval old part of the title city in Low Country Belgium, better known here as the home of Hercule Poirot and the European Union. Blessed with tenth-to-fourteenth-century painting and architecture, this Flemish Venice of the North is present in postcard perfection, though not as the professed “additional key character” becoming darker and Gothic -- “benign to sinister” -- as the film moves along.
What is supposed to come across, but does not, is that this inanimate movement from beauty towards evil parallels development within the human protagonists, from inept and comic, through pain and death, to trite redemptive resolution. Beneath fashionable verbal profanity, and despite their occupations as hired killers or drug dealers, the principals are immediately so good of heart deep-down that, given overall tone, one knows all will turn out right despite plot-generating ups and downs.
Alec Guinness’ denture-challenged Professor may favor expedient good manners but gets what he deserves. In contrast, like the city to which they are exiled on the heels of a botched hit, Irish mercenary murderers portly Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and stubbly young Ray (Colin Farrell) are intended to display two faces, trigger-finger danger alternating with sensitive vulnerability. Calm Ken comes to broaden cultural horizons during the two-week lie-low ordered by London boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), tightly wound Ray is bored by history and looks for wine and women. Ruthless family man kingpin Harry, too, displays a two-sidedness, in insistence on Old Testament settling of accounts as a matter of personal honor, tempered by a soft spot for children and “fairy-tale” locations. And although she and skinhead ex-boyfriend Eirik (Jérémie Rénier) fool with “girl’s guns” loaded with blanks or live ammunition, rob tourists and deal cocaine and pills, Ray’s easy local love interest Chloë (Clémence Poésy) is broad-minded enough to offer staple salvation through amour.
Against the memento mori of eternal punishment, an awkward image flashes: Ray pumping a clip into a priest in the confessional, then to find that an errant round “blew the head off a little kid” waiting with his list of venial sins. Innocence taunts him in siblings strolling with parents or alone in playgrounds or the belly of pregnant pension owner Marie (Thekla Reuten), even perversely in Schwarzenegger-faced revolutionary whoring druggie American dwarf Jimmy (Jordan Prentice) making a Dutch movie. Ray half-articulately questions his companion-in-crime about hellfire and is stopped just this side of suicide with the other’s assurances of reparation through future good deeds.
The transparent characters’ puffed self-revelations are not surprising. The story presumes they will win us over through a shared though individual code of honor. The misfired killing that tortures him was, after all, excessively quizzical-faced Ray’s one and only mission to now, most of his partner’s victims were not admirable, and none of it was personal, anyway.
Forget Tony Camonte or Cody Jarrett; Fiennes’ caricature, for example, chews it up in misguided parody of Ben Kingsley’s already parodic Sexy Beast Don Logan. Harry is as morally meretricious as the underlying thesis and not to be rounded by his favors granted past or present, by momentary largesse or strict accounting for others’ conduct and, prefigured in his own words, his own.
In Bruges discloses nothing that is not at once discernible and, even with new wrinkles, does not measure up against better caper-gone-awry works. Inner hearts of gold do not cohabit with cold bloodletting, redemption does not lie in loyalty to other butchers and their rulebook. Discerning moviegoers will not be deceived. But the film angles for viewers weaned on surfaces, often flat wise-alecky dialogue plus under- or overacting, and it ought to hook them.
(Released by Focus Features and rated “R” for strong blood and violence, pervasive language and some drug use.)