Some people go for Star Wars, or My Fair Lady, or Some Like It Hot, or Casablanca, when they’re looking for something familiar and reliably entertaining to have on sort of in the background as a kind of audio-visual tonic. Others who prefer their soothing to be peppered with profanity, a little light violence and some reassuringly brilliant one-liners might choose Life Of Brian, or Withnail & I, or The Big Lebowski. Right now, I’m finding that my comfort film of choice is In Bruges. I must have watched it half a dozen times in the last couple of years and it’s not getting any less funny, and I’m seriously starting to think that it may be one of the greatest films anyone’s ever made.
Quick alert: I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but will inevitably be going into bits of detail here and there. If you haven’t seen the film stop now and go and watch it. Honestly. It’s brilliant.
A bare description of In Bruges isn’t promising. Here we have two low-level hitmen who have been sent by their gangster boss to hole up in a bed and breakfast in the beautiful but not exactly buzzing medieval Belgian city after a job goes badly wrong. One of them, Brendan Gleeson’s Ken, is middle-aged and quietly quite pleased about having the opportunity to take in some culture and history – the other, Colin Farrell’s Ray, is younger and highly unimpressed by being forced to re-locate somewhere so far from any action. The first third or so of the film is mainly taken up by Ray’s desperate, but sometimes surprisingly successful, attempts to keep himself entertained and Ken’s increasing exasperation at Ray’s inability to keep a low profile. Eventually the plot thickens in ways that both arise naturally from the set-up and are completely unforeseeable, and we start seeing guns, stand-offs, chases and showdowns before the plot resolves itself elegantly and without unnecessary complications. Throughout the film pretty much every character drops four letter words and their cognates as if a prohibition on profanity was just around the corner.
So far, so Guy Ritchie. Sweary gangster films are not exactly a rarity, and most of the ones I’ve seen are wearying and cynical. In Bruges is however blessed with a script written by experienced playwright Martin McDonagh and Lord is it good: witty, pithy, surprising, free of clunky exposition and overabounding with deathlessly quotable lines. The actor Ralph Brown was once asked in an interview why he thought Withnail & I (in which he appeared as Danny the drug dealer) had achieved such resounding cult status and he replied to the effect that it was probably because “there are no crap bits in it” – the same applies to In Bruges. The first time you watch it you get a kick from the turns of the plot, the arresting dialogue and the believable, if somewhat heightened, characters and a second viewing is required to catch the details you might have missed because you were laughing so much the first. Thereafter, you’re familiar with the shape of it and the pleasure is more to do with anticipation: every new scene has you leaning forward, thinking “ooh, this is a good bit” – there’s absolutely no padding or drag in the thing at all.
It helps that the film is perfectly cast and that all the actors are up to the job of getting maximum mileage from the material they’re given. Colin Farrell’s CV is mixed to say the least (he’s often to be spotted in unappetising action films, seemingly as a low-rent substitute for Tom Cruise), but he nails the gormless, yet guilt-wracked, Ray perfectly. This character initially appears to be three parts naive thrill-seeker to one part sleekly efficient thug, but as the film progresses his inner turmoil is gradually exposed, and Farrell must be given credit for gaining the audience’s sympathy. In contrast, Brendan Gleeson cuts a reliable and avuncular figure as Ken, the voice of reason who appreciates the value of keeping one’s head down, but again this character is also eventually revealed to have a difficult inner conflict that will require a hard decision. The third lead is Ralph Fiennes’s ruthless and rat-like overlord Harry, who isn’t actually seen on screen until the second half of the film, but whose presence is felt throughout via an escalation of intimidating phone calls and messages. Harry could easily have been a one-note cliché, a variation on the terrifying Ben Kingsley psychopath from Sexy Beast, but yet again he’s given a moral framework, one that he’s bound to operate within despite the potentially extreme consequences to himself. This sense that the characters in the film are all following their own codes of honour, even if those codes are in some cases demonstrably warped, is one of the main factors that lift In Bruges above all the other possibly diverting, but ultimately empty, gangster flicks out there.
The other main reason you’ve got to see this film is the sheer quality of the dialogue. McDonagh puts words in his character’s mouths that will have you gasping with pleasure, whether it’s Ray’s gloriously unpolitically correct assessments of one of the best preserved medieval towns in Belgium, a local gun supplier’s obsession with nailing down the precise circumstances one should deploy the word “alcoves”, Ken’s referencing of Harry’s children during a dismissal of the possibility of his boss’s spiritual growth or Harry’s demand for highly specific information on Ray’s current lavatory status during a telephone call. I was going to use the actual quotes but on reflection that would be as bad as a plot spoiler. Plus I’d probably get taken down for obscenity.
McDonagh was smart enough to wangle himself the directing job as well, having recognised that that was where the bigger bucks were, and while In Bruges is first and foremost a film where people have conversations rather than a sumptuous visual epic it’s still worth noting his tasteful and restrained style. This could easily have been made as a dull sequence of two-shots, with the camera just sitting there taking in the actors reciting the script. Instead, McDonagh exploits his location to great effect. The film is set at Christmas, and the looming medieval buildings are shot to seem monumental and sometimes impassively threatening, and when the snow starts to fall the city really does fulfil the description Harry keeps ascribing to it as “a fairytale place”. There are occasional short sequences of local architecture and landmarks acting as buffers between dialogue scenes that really convey the sense of Bruges as a place slightly marooned out of time and these really help to add weight to Ray’s frequent diatribes against the place. This isn’t just a peerlessly funny film, it’s really quite a beautiful one too.
I guess I’ve gone on long enough and I haven’t even mentioned dwarves, blindness, irascible Canadians, overweight Americans or horse tranquillizers yet. Forget Citizen Kane and The Godfather and 12 Angry Men. In Bruges is where it’s at. It’s in Belgium.