Imagine if Laurel and Hardy were Irish hitmen caught in a web of existential angst. That’s what In Bruges is: intellectual slapstick, a ticklish combination of comic torment, a brutal grasping of life’s fickleness, and sheer bloody violence that is like a shout in the dark against it, as if you could hold back the universe’s uncaring by taking its senselessness into your own hands, by being as miserable a bloody bastard as the universe is itself. It makes you have to laugh, however shallowly, because what else can you do? It all makes no goddamn sense at all.
This is not an uplifting movie. Just so’s you know. Don’t expect kittens and balloons.
Ray and Ken, they’re hired killers, and they work in London, but as In Bruges opens their boss has told them to scram for a while after a job that’s gone bad. He sends them to Bruges, in Belgium — for reasons that transpire later to be bizarrely hilarious — which, if I gather correctly, is like sending someone to Cincinnati to hide out. It’s place you can spend a year in over a weekend, is the idea, except it looks like a pretty little town that I’d actually really like to visit. If I weren’t, you know, haunted by something horrible that had just happened to me. You have to wonder what would be horrible to a hitman, what would bother him, but Colin Farrell’s Ray is clearly distressed about whatever went down in London, which is in itself rather distressing to the audience.
Because Ray seems like kind of a nice guy. I mean, for all that he’s a hired killer. And for all that he comes across as pretty obnoxious and mean and thoughtlessly rude (there are a few funny and very un-P.C. scenes of his shocking rudeness). But here’s the thing about Ray, and about Farrell’s (Cassandra’s Dream, Miami Vice) inspired performance, which is like nothing we’ve seen him do before, and full of the weird wit and churning undercurrents that we would desperately hope to continue to see more of from him again: he’s dumb, but he’s deep, in his own unique way. He doesn’t mean to be mean when he says things that anyone with half a brain would recognize as mean and hence would keep their mouths shut about. He means to be honest — he’s even enthusiastic, in a strange kind of way. I mean, he tells Ken, attempting to explain how bored he is by Bruges and all its medieval churches and cobblestone streets and the like, that “If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.” “Didn’t” meaning, clearly, that he didn’t grow up on a farm, leaving open the possibility that he might be somewhat mentally retarded. And I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that mental retardation is in itself amusing: I mean to suggest that Ray’s deeply philosophical bent — of which there is much more on offer — is hilarious because of its unfettered honestly. He sincerely does not realize what an idiot he is, which makes him a peculiar brand of brilliant.
So when he says, as he and Ken are stumbling around Bruges and happen upon a movie shoot, “They’re filming midgets!”… you know, he’s genuinely excited by this, and in no way that is meant to be exploitive. Ray ends up befriending the midget, after all.
If this sounds, well, surrealistic, yeah, it kinda is. First-time screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh has crafted a movie that is at once improbably funny, deeply disturbing, intensely thrilling, deliciously brainy, and totally visceral: basically, it’s just all-around genius. It gets way more involved than having Ray and Ken wander an old city for a few days, pondering the meaning of life and shit — Ken gets a call, eventually, with a new job from the boss, and later the boss shows up, and it all ends up as a much a parody of the hitman action movie as a walloping hitman action movie itself. And have I not mentioned Brendan Gleeson (Beowulf, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)? He’s Ken, and he’s the perfect foil for Farrell’s Ray, smarter and wilier but far more sentimental than Ray.
This may sound weird, but work with me: In Bruges is kinda a bookend to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, if you’re the kind of moviegoer who just wants great story and unforgettable characters and doesn’t care whether they come in a screwball chick-flick package or an ultraviolent hitman-black-comedy package. For Farrell is Amy Adams’s ditzy showgirl and Gleeson is Frances McDormand’s sensible chaperone and they discover what they’re made of in each other’s company. And it is not, perhaps, what either of them would expect.