There’s nothing better than a film that staggers you with its confidence; that comes at you with the swagger of a seasoned fighter and the pout of a veteran Lothario. One that tells you that, after less than a minute in its company, you will fall utterly in love. From a veteran filmmaker, these works are rarer than rocking-horse shit, so for a debut writer and director to perform this feat is incredible. This first-timer however was Martin McDonagh, the English playwright who made his career bringing Faulkner-like Southern Gothic to rural Ireland in celebrated works such as The Lonesome West, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. The pedigree was undoubtedly there, but what is miraculous is how effortlessly he transferred his signature style to film.
Like David Mamet, another lauded playwright who’s made a successful transition to the big screen, McDonagh favours fast-talking men hurling scabrous profanities; seeming alpha-males devoured by bigger fish or boiled in a crucible of toxic masculinity. Throw in a very Irish Catholic preoccupation with sin, damnation and redemption and you have a cinematic concoction of knee-wobbling potency. Like his plays, the characters in In Bruges exist on the fringes of society, are capable of sudden outbursts of violence, both verbal and physical, and are ultimately consumed by their environments. The principles are Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) two hitmen who have been ordered to lay low in the titular city by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) after a botched job.
If there were any concerns over how well McDonagh’s writing would transfer to the screen, they were instantly dissolved as soon as the film opens. In Bruges is intensely cinematic, partly thanks to the gorgeous setting. Not only does the city provide an original and memorable backdrop for a crime caper, it also serves as an important thematic purpose in the story. It’s a place of heaven, of purgatory, and of damnation. Where else could this story have been told but a medieval city? Where else would Ray’s worst demons lurk? It’s no coincidence that our heroes examine The Last Judgment, a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch. Bruges works as another character, like the most memorable cinematic locations. It’s so effective, it’s hard to imagine this tale taking place anywhere else.
To make a crude comparison, In Bruges starts out like Tarantino taking on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Ray and Ken are in the Vladimir and Estragon roles, caught in limbo at the whims of the volatile Harry. Ray is an uncultured motor mouth, immature and hedonistic. He’s instantly bored by the city. As it turns out, the tedium leaves him with too much time to devote to his own colossal guilt over the botched job in which a child was killed. Even a tentative relationship with the beautiful Chloe (Clémence Poésy) isn’t enough to quell these feelings. Ken is the more seasoned hitman, appreciative of his surroundings and stern but avuncular with his younger colleague. Like a more parochial version of Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction, they are two very bad men who have done terrible things, but in whose company it’s a joy to spend time. They bicker and moan at each other, but there is undoubtedly a bond. Ray respects his elder partner and Ken feels protective towards Ray. Thus, when Harry calls and tells Ken to execute Ray for his transgression, Ken’s dilemma has real force.
This is where the real skill of McDonagh comes to the fore. There are the verbal pyrotechnics that come with the postmodern gangster flick, but there can be no accusations of style over substance. There is a real existential tension that underpins everything in the film; the weight of sin, the moral imperative in retribution, the possibility of redemption. McDonagh deftly juggles the odd-couple comedy, the heightened fairy tale atmosphere and the more prosaic tropes of the Brit crime-thriller while never losing sight of his thematic concerns. When Ken decides not to kill Ray and take the consequences from Harry, it’s not necessarily Ray’s redemption he’s seeking – after all, if Ray lives and goes back to work, where’s the morality there? – But his own. The burden of his own deeds are occasionally revealed in snatched clauses amongst broader dialogue, and he’s become slouched and weary over the years and the opportunity to give Ray a fresh start is a glimmer of atonement.
Happily, this decision also brings Fiennes’ Harry barreling into town just in time to steal the film. There may be a hint that he’s a little too broad a character after Ray and Ken’s very specific dynamic – you get the impression McDonagh has been impressed by Ben Kingsley’s monstrous Don Logan in Sexy Beast – but Fiennes can play villainy in so many ways that it never feels like scenery-chewing. Harry is mercurial, ruthless and, even by McDonagh’s standards, astonishingly potty-mouthed. Yet, he has his own code of honour and is bound by his sense of principle, which of course brings about his downfall in brilliantly absurd fashion. It is the scene between Ken and Harry drinking in an outdoor café at the base of the Bruges clock tower that is the truest distillation of McDonagh’s style. It’s brilliantly acted, endlessly quotable, hilarious and profane, tense as hell, and expertly draws on his theatre background without being in any way stagey.
Martin McDonagh has really managed some weird form of alchemy with In Bruges. As well as his achievements in writing such a wonderfully deep and brilliant piece of work, he’s also the first director in what seemed like forever to know how to extract the best from Colin Farrell. He was considered lightweight for ages, but is fantastic here, and his skill at portraying a taut masculinity in crisis has subsequently been utilised to perfection by Yorgos Lanthimos in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Sofia Copolla in The Beguiled. It does have to be acknowledged that letting him use his own accent definitely helps though. He more than matches Gleeson and Fiennes here and this was undoubtedly a revitalising moment for his career.
Whether Martin McDonagh will ever match his debut film is hard to say. Seven Psychopaths was great fun, but got tangled up in the postmodern fripperies of its conceit. The critical grapevine is overwhelmingly positive about his keenly awaited Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, although there is a significant vocal minority criticising the film’s racial politics, as well as his outsider’s eye of small-town America. Regardless of what he does in the future, In Bruges is a stunning film, not just a brilliant debut. It was a shot to the head of a frankly inert genre, and it’s really evident just how good it is when you look at the gangster dross that’s come out in its wake.