In Bruges (2008)

2009 #22
Martin McDonagh | 102 mins | TV | 18 / R

This review contains minor spoilers.

In BrugesIn Bruges has gathered quite a bit of indie-level praise and acclaim, culminating in wider recognition at the Oscars and other awards ceremonies at the start of this year. For those like me, finally getting round to seeing it in the wake of all this, it comes with quite a burden of expectation on its shoulders. Can it possibly be the modern classic many make it out to be? I mean, it is set in, y’know, Bruges…

First and (perhaps) foremost, In Bruges is hilariously funny, much more so than most by-the-numbers ‘comedy’ films can manage. The easily-offended might disagree, and some jokes are a tad too obvious (Americans are fat! Fat people can’t climb tight stairs!), but it’s nice to genuinely laugh at a film rather than force the odd smirk so as to at least get something from an otherwise wasted 90 minutes. It’s also dark and occasionally tragic though, and in this respect it’s unsurprising that writer/director McDonagh started out as an acclaimed and award-winning playwright, as stage plays mix humour and darkness more frequently (and with wider extremes) than films ever dare to. His theatrical roots also go some way to explaining the amount and ferocity of the swearing (again, something plays are more prepared to indulge in), but so too the brilliance of the dialogue. That it takes a playwright to craft such a good film is perhaps an irony, but not a troubling one.

Good dialogue is wasted without a good cast however, and thankfully everyone here gives a fantastic performance. The standout is Colin Farrell as hitman Ray. He initially seems a confident, cocky, experienced young hitman, and therefore verges dangerously close to stereotype, but we soon realise he’s actually twitchy, nervous, insecure, and genuinely sorry for the sole act of violence he committed. It might look like a Black Comedy With Nasty Violence to some — certainly, there are reviews that suggest some viewers are incapable of seeing anything beyond that — but there’s a lot more depth in the characters than the surface would suggest. Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes give consummate supporting performances, like Farrell chipping away at the stereotyped facades to find the hidden facets that the script is kind enough to reveal.

The quality of McDonagh’s writing (and direction) doesn’t stop with character and dialogue. The story is thematically considered, with a variety of paintings and associated imagery to occupy those who might be interested. Events are beautifully tied together and, best of all, none of the early scenes feel oddly inserted or have that nagging sense that they’re merely an excuse for something to be there later — everything works first time, and then has a seamless payoff too. Some viewers have criticised the ending, but I suspect they’re largely more used to mainstream fare and viewers who have ever enjoyed an indie film won’t bat an eyelid. All in, it’s easy to see why the screenplay has become the film’s prime awards nominee and winner.

Nominations, wins and buzz weigh heavy, but In Bruges has shoulders broad enough to carry such expectation with ease. “There’s never been a classic movie made in Bruges,” one character truthfully espouses, “until now.” It seems she couldn’t’ve been more right.

5 out of 5

In Bruges placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

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