Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” is two movies in one — the first two acts a mournful, blackly funny, Catholicism-influenced mediation on guilt; the last a balls-to-the-walls, screwball action farce. If the film were a man walking down the street, he’d be dressed in a crisp dress shirt and a finely tailored sport-jacket on top and a pair of tie-dye cargo shorts below. And while that outfit may sound like a complete disaster, if you were to walk by the man, the romantic in you might just entertain the idea that he was not delusional, but simply fashion-forward. That’s what viewers must do with “In Bruges,” for it’s such a unique experience that to simply dismiss it as structurally flawed would be to rob oneself of colorful fun and substantive (if utterly discombobulated) meaning.
Even if one rejects the dramatic tonal shift that the film takes at the end, it would be absurd not to recognize the near-flawless first hour, which finds hit-men Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) holed up in a Bruges hotel, awaiting instructions from their handler, Harry (Ralph Fiennes). Writer/director McDonagh sets up the dynamic of a buddy comedy–the two are comedic opposites; Ray has the emotional maturity and intellect of a child, while the hardened Ken basically babysits him–but consistently defies that narrow mold. Even as they comically muse about what a hellhole Bruges is, a striking sorrow permeates the pair’s interactions, with foreboding shots of religious architecture increasing its severity. Given their profession, these two know guilt, and McDonaugh does an exceptional job of allowing the viewer to feel it with them.
That’s not to say that the first two acts of “In Bruges” are all fire and brimstone. There is very pointed humor–not simply Ken and Ray’s Bruges trash-talking the city–that makes fun of fat people, dwarves, and other crass topics. When Ken gets Ralph Fiennes’ foul-mouthed Harry on the telephone, his rage-filled remarks and contrasting love of Bruges are genuinely hysterical. Even a dark scene in which we learn of the men’s last assignment–a botched job that resulted in the death of a young boy, taking a serious toll on Ray’s psyche–packs a certain wicked irony. These pieces feel like an original way to accent the larger narrative, giving it a signature style that makes the important stuff even more memorable.
But in the final act, the movie’s comedic touches disconcertingly become its modus operandi. After a climax-driving twist that causes the menacing Harry to turn up in person, multiple firearms in tow, “In Bruges” essentially becomes a full-scale action-comedy. McDonaugh is a skilled enough director that he constructs this stretch exceptionally well–eons beyond trash like “The Boondock Saints”–but one gets the sense that he completely loses sight of the film’s strongest themes. Rather than take them to an unsettling logical extreme that might alienate the audience, the writer/director cuts and runs by offering the titillation of cartoonish gunplay and an extended chase sequence instead. But as marginalizing of the material as this 180 may be, it’s ultimately not worth getting worked up over because to do so would be a distraction from all the substantive material that McDonagh gives the viewer to chew on. The suit-top and the tie-dye shorts may not go together, but McDonagh sure wears both of them well.
“Reviews by Request” is a column in which Critic Speak readers are able to force writer Danny Baldwin to review a film of their choice, on the condition that they post a link to Critic Speak on their Facebook wall and/or Twitter feed in return. You can get in on the fun today; just send proof that you’ve linked Critic Speak via Facebook or Twitter and make your request (film must be available to rent on Netflix). This review of “In Bruges” was requested by Brian Berg.