On paper, In Bruges is like any other crime movie. It forces a mismatched couple of hotheads into an enclosed space and lets the sparks fly from the friction; it depicts warring gangsters shoot first and ask questions later; it even reckons with themes of responsibility and guilt. But this is a crime thriller determined not to take itself seriously, peppered with sizzlingly silly dialogue even up to its emotional denouement — and instead of the mean streets of Little Italy or the East End, all set in the fairy-tale medieval town of Bruges, which one character repeatedly asserts is “a shithole”.
In Bruges is really unlike any other crime movie, and represents a staggeringly assured debut from British-Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh — who, by the time In Bruges went into production in 2007, was already an Oscar-winning filmmaker, for his short film Six Shooter (also starring Brendan Gleeson). Crucially, though, by that time McDonagh was also an acclaimed playwright, with four productions mounted in both Broadway and the West End, two of them picking up Olivier awards.
Still, it’s fairly remarkable how confident this film is in its strangeness, toying with tropes without ever surrendering to them fully. It’s a crime film in which the central crime takes place before the start of the film, shown only in flashbacks while we observe the frequently farcical aftermath. Irish hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) is sent to assassinate a priest, and in the process accidentally leaves a bullet in the head of an innocent choirboy, too. He and his veteran partner, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), are sent to the postcard-pretty Belgian town of Bruges, by order of their Mob boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, doing his best Ray Winstone), where they must await further instructions.
Boredom sets in, and the genteel canal-boat charm of Bruges allows for both men to reflect on their violent lives, the quaint Flemish cobbles juxtaposed with hardened, murderous foul-mouthery. But McDonagh rarely allows things to get serious for too long, undercutting the sentiment with absurdist humour and his own peculiar brand of rat-a-tat dialogue. Witness Ray’s tearful discussion about his guilt over the shooting, which quickly evolves into a bizarre and hilarious tangent about lollipop men doing karate: the very epitome of tragicomedy.
McDonagh’s theatrical background is evident in these back-and-forths, which delight in petty squabbles and humdrum misunderstandings. Like vintage Tarantino, this is a film of talkative people, and McDonagh’s BAFTA-winning script finds the character beats through mundane moments — even in characters on the sidelines, such as the local gun-runner (Eric Godon) who has a curious fascination with the word “alcoves”, or the pregnant hotelier (Thekla Reuten) who takes issue with being called a receptionist. (“I’m the co-owner with my husband Patrice,” she curtly handwrites below Harry’s sweary diatribe.) These tiny but sublime flourishes breathe three dimensions into even the most insignificant player.
As with most of his work, McDonagh tiptoes along the border of political correctness, and often steps a full leg across it. Homophobia, racism, child abuse and fat-shaming are all mined for tasteless gags, leading some to accuse the film of punching downwards. “Two manky hookers and a racist dwarf,” bellows Gleeson, in one of the film’s more infamous lines. “I think I’m heading home.”
Whether this material oversteps the boundaries of taste depends on your disposition, but importantly, the cast humanise the characters to such an extent that the crudity fits. Brendan Gleeson is endlessly reliable, of course, an actor liable to elevate even the clunkiest of scripts, and in his hands, Ken has a paternal air about him: both protective and occasionally dorky.
Farrell, on the other hand, was revelatory at the time. The Irish actor was in a career funk during the late noughties, with a string of disappointments to his name; In Bruges marked something of a turning point. He is extraordinary as Ray, a complex criminal driven by impulse but stricken by shame, and in his more vulnerable moments Farrell gives him the innocence and impotence of a six-year-old.
Even Ralph Fiennes, as the ostensible villain Harry, is allowed flourishes of humanity amidst his near-psychopathic rage. Everyone remembers the phone-smashing scene (“You’re an inanimate fucking object!”), but in spite of his homicidal leanings, he is still a man of grisly principles, unwilling to start a firefight in a public square, and committing fully to his doctrine that the ultimate price must be paid for child murder.
In fact, everyone pays a price of sorts for their violent vocation. Unlike Tarantino, McDonagh doesn’t revere his characters, or drip them in cool iconography: they’re just deeply flawed thugs, and after recognising their flaws, all meet a version of justice. Only Ray’s fate is left ambiguous, left to ponder whether hell is merely “eternity spent in fucking Bruges”. Perhaps it is — but a couple of hours spent in In Bruges is quite the opposite.
First published in Empire Classics: The Greatest Crime Movies Ever