Thursday, February 5, 2009

In Bruges

There's a refreshing audacity in Martin McDonagh's feature-length debut that is so lacking in Hollywood today. McDonagh, one of the UK's most celebrated modern playwrights, claims his first love was film, and that joy practically leaps off the screen and asks you for a dance. Don't get me wrong: this is not some musical, or even a happy movie, but it's so gleefully ignorant of the "right" ways to make movies that it carves out something wholly unique and indefinable. To those who say "you need to know the rules before you can break them:" meet Martin McDonagh.

You know something special is on the horizon from the very start of the film, as a man recounts completing an assassination and being told to flee London for Bruges. "I disn't even know where Bruges was." A pause. "It's in Belgium." Our narrator is Ray (Colin Farrell), a hitman hiding out in the city after a hit goes horribly (and very, very darkly funny) wrong. Accompanying this fresh-faced nervous wreck is Ken, played marvelously by Brendan Gleeson. Ken looks after Ray and conferences with their boss Harry, a man whose importance and legend is conveyed without ever mentioning them.

At first the two seem like obvious foils, and they are: Ray looks young and handsome but broils inside with guilt, while Ken, sporting what Ebert terms "that noble shambles of a face" presents himself as a kind and caring man who ust so happens to kill people. Ken looks at all the medieval architecture in wonder, spouting off facts he gleaned from brochures. In a way, he seems younger and more idealistic than Ray, who couldn't care less about any of the sights. You get a taste of how un-P.C. the film will get when Ray dismisses the whole town in an argument with Ken: "If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't."

McDonagh does structure things like a play, but he never falls into the perilous trap of the playwright-cum-director. Yes, the film has three acts, but then don't most films, regardless of whether or not they're adapted from a play or written by a playwright? Besides, the acts defy any set logic: each act introduces and ends a new conflict while contributing to the overall story, yet at no point does the movie feel episodic.

First we see Ray and Ken adjust to this European fairytale land, and finally we learn what went wrong with his first hit. The startling revelation leads to an emotional fallout in the second act, as Ray grapples with his demons and Ken must deal with an order from Harry to dispose of the lad for his errors. When Ken ultimately refuses, we finally, after two-thirds of the movie, see Harry. Now, he's on the poster and the DVD cover so it's not like I was surprised, but I can't tell you my joy when Ralph Fiennes popped on screen on the other end of that telephone. He's received no end of accolades, but he's just one of those actors that can so thoroughly entertain in anything he does that he almost feels underrated. In a way, the film ends with the inevitable shootout, but it plays out in ways that are anything but clichéd.

Filling in the gaps of all this is our heroes' rambling forays into the city and the utterly bizarre people they meet. The two consume astonishing amounts of lager and stumble onto the set of a film starring a dwarf, whom Ray repeatedly refers to as a "midget" even though he knows it's not the proper term. He also strikes up a relationship with Chloë (Clemence Poesy), one of the production designers who actually just steals and supplies drugs to the stars. All of this leads to numerous scenes too bizarre to place into words (unless you're McDonagh, of course), and every last one is screamingly funny. It's the kind of humor you really shouldn't be laughing at, yet McDonagh is above simple shock comedy: Ray uses all sorts of un-P.C. language, but in such a way you're far more caught off guard by the context of the jokes than the words.

2008 didn't exactly deliver the goods in terms of great movies (especially in comparison to the slew of magnificence in 2007), but In Bruges stood out amongst the few. It wasn't the funniest film of the year, but it flouts so many clichés and goes in so many unexpected directions that it entertained me far more than the funnier Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. It's the kind of film that's easy to overlook, but do yourself a favor and sit down with this endlessly dark yet very human comedy.

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