Looking back at In Bruges

It’s a comedy, gangster picture, moody drama, and a masterpiece of filmmaking. Paul looks back at Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges...

Ken: You know, I’m not sure it’s really his thing.

Harry: What do you mean it’s not really his thing? What’s that supposed to mean? It’s not really his thing. What the fuck is that supposed to mean?

Ken: Nothing, Harry.

Harry: It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing?

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One of the most noticeable sea changes in movies over the years has been the ever-narrowing time span between a cult film’s initially underwhelming reception and the eventual reappraisal it receives from a dedicated fan following.

An increased emphasis on the box office numbers provided on an opening weekend means that it takes less than a week for a film to be adjudged as a success or a failure. This, coupled with the awesome power of the Internet increasing the speed of word of mouth to the level of a 10MB broadband line, means that films get christened as ‘cult’ a lot earlier than they did in the days of no home video, fanzines instead of blogs, and staggered theatrical releases.

Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is a good, recent example of a film that developed a cult following almost instantly, with sold-out, cos-playing midnight screenings taking place mere weeks after its widespread box office failure.

By a similar token, despite very good critical notices (it even garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay), In Bruges was largely unheralded by audiences upon its original release in August 2008. In the years since then, however, the reputation and legacy of In Bruges has grown to the point where it can scarcely be considered a cult film at all.

Much like the initially unsuccessful Shawshank Redemption, In Bruges has found its home on DVD, and if it hasn’t already, is currently on the cusp of transcending its cult status and penetrating through into both the popular and critical canon of great movies.

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Its status is now such that The Guard, debuting in English cinemas this week, has become one of the most anticipated films of the year, off the back of a largely tangential relationship with In Bruges – they share a star in Brendan Gleeson, and The Guard’s writer and director is John Michael McDonagh, brother of In Bruges writer and director Martin McDonagh.

Looking back, it’s clear that one of the biggest reasons why In Bruges failed to find its audience on release was down to its ineffective marketing campaign, which presented the film in trailers and posters either as a hard-nosed, bullet-strewn gangster thriller or a knockabout comedy, neither of which, in actuality, it bears much relation to.

In fairness to the marketing and advertising suits, however, how exactly would you market In Bruges? Where would you pigeonhole it? It’s funnier than nintety-nine per cent of comedies, but the prevailing tone overall is one of despair and melancholy. There are long, contemplative and languidly paced passages where we essentially accompany the characters on a sightseeing trip of Bruges, interspersed with moments of gory, extreme splatter. It’s a gangster film, in that it’s a film about gangsters, but these are not the deodorised, sharply-attired paragons of insouciance from the long screen tradition of Truffaut, Scorsese and Tarantino: they’re bored, scared, stupid, insecure, and irritable.

The disparate marriage of various genres in In Bruges is a difficult one to distil and categorise. In terms of tone, it’s probably closest to the work of the Coen brothers, in its satirical and distinctly un-romantic portrayal of criminals and fondness for jet-black comedic payoffs. Unfortunately, Coen-esque traits don’t lend themselves well to posters or trailers. As hard as it may seem to believe now, it took a long time for the Coens to garner critical and commercial acclaim, and only achieved their current level of success, after years – decades – of consistently great work, critical acclaim,  and a steady accumulation of their cult following. even then they had to make a bona fide masterpiece (Fargo) to make it so audiences or award boards could no longer ignore them.

But In Bruges was a debut feature for Martin McDonagh, who was celebrated in the theatrical community, but very much an unknown quantity to most cinemagoers, despite already being an Oscar-winner for the short, Six Shooter. As a result, the bulk of the promotional heavy lifting was done by Colin Farrell, who as In Bruges’ most recognisable and therefore bankable star, took pride of place on the poster and in the trailers.

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Unfortunately, this focus probably hurt the film more than it helped: Farrell, who made the improbable transition from Ballykissangel to Hollywood with such promise in Tigerland, had preceded his turn in In Bruges with a series of asinine, poorly received action movies (SWAT, Daredevil, The Recruit), high profile flops (Hart’s War, Alexander), and a string of personal incidents apparently involving copious amounts of sex, booze, pills and cocaine.

Despite an occasional interesting role in the likes of Terrance Malick’s The New World and Intermission, Farrell really needed Ray in In Bruges to stop him from permanently occupying the kind of beige space in Hollywood as a Shia LeBeouf or a Sam Worthington. It’s a career-best performance, to be sure, and it’s still a joy watching him twitch around Bruges, terrified, racked with guilt and amphetamine-twisted, but also imbued with a child-like innocence and a genuine amount of heart.

In Ray, Farrell finds his Travis Bickle, or Dirty Harry – it’s impossible to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role so completely. His career trajectory since In Bruges has been on the up and up. A more reasonable person would attribute this more to his new-found sobriety than anything resulting from a single performance, but the role of In Bruges in his resurgence probably shouldn’t be underestimated.

While Farrell gets the career-defining role, he may not even give the best performance in the film. That honour might go to Brendan Gleeson who, as Ken, provides the film’s conscience and moral centre. Roger Ebert is fond of bringing up Gleeson’s appearance in his reviews, memorably describing him as having a “noble shambles of a face and the heft of a boxer gone to seed.”

It’s true that Gleeson’s impressively droopy visage is a good visual shorthand for the inherent world-weariness present in Ken’s personality, but it’s not like he falls back on it as a crutch or anything – it’s a powerful but measured performance, radiating with humour and pathos.

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Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the extended scene where he discusses the Bruges trip with boss Harry over the phone. The camera stays with Gleeson the entire time, and we get to see him as his mood changes from playful piss-taking, to a horrified realisation once Harry’s motives become clear, to grim acceptance. Gleeson nails every beat perfectly, making a long, visually uninteresting scene of a man talking on the phone in a dull room as gripping as any action sequence.

Ralph Fiennes is no slouch as Harry, either: arriving late into the film, he joins Kevin Spacey in Se7en, William Hurt in A History Of Violence and Zelda Rubenstein in Poltergeist in the pantheon of larger-than-life characters who storm into the third act with an impact that threatens to almost unbalance everything, before elevating the whole film with a perfectly-pitched, unforgettable performance. Fiennes’ Harry is a hilarious riff on the Krays, Jack Carter, and particularly Ben Kingsley’s highly caffeinated psychopath in Sexy Beast. He also gets perhaps the film’s most memorable line, which we’ll come to shortly.

Despite these acting heavyweights, In Bruges’ biggest weapon is Martin McDonagh, something of a theatrical savant who, at the time of In Bruges’s release, had already written numerous plays that had made big commercial and critical impacts. At the age of 27, McDonagh had four plays of his being staged in the West End simultaneously, a feat only matched by one other playwright in history – William Shakespeare.

Despite being heralded by many in the theatrical community, McDonagh infuriated others by claiming to be more influenced by cinema, and directors such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, than he was by Shakespeare, Pinter and Beckett.

While this might have rankled with those critics who still regarded cinema as theatre’s bratty younger brother, the plays themselves proved incredibly popular, and the unique McDonagh style was established right in the early days of his playwriting career. So there was a heady combination of none-more-black humour, gothic ultraviolence, and a very pronounced sense of Irishness and what it means to be Irish.

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In Bruges has a good story at its core, but it’s these three aspects of McDonagh’s writing that lift it into the realms of the truly great. If you’ve seen it, you know how funny it is, with an impressive variety of gags, from absurd whimsy (“I wasn’t waving to anyone today, I was on some very strong horse tranquilizer …except maybe to a horse.”), to slapstick (Ray karate-chopping Jimmy).

What’s most memorable, however, is the film’s sheer disregard for political correctness. It takes a lot to shock audiences verbally in a time when South Park is over a decade old, but In Bruges has a number of moments that I remember elicited genuine gasps from audiences in the cinema upon release, including Ken’s unforgettably profane description of Harry, and his kids, and his kids’ kids.

Buddy comedies with dirty wisecracks are a dime a dozen, however, and what marks In Bruges out as something different is the way it filters violence through the comedy. The mixture of bloody violence and humour recalls the kind of tonal shifts that Tarantino popularized in the 90s, leading to a number of weak imitators and rip-off merchants that still find work today. In Bruges employs this technique a little differently, however – the violence is so over-the top, yet is so crucial to the fabric of the storyline, a more accurate description of it might be ‘satirical violence’, rather than ‘black humour’.

For example, in Pulp Fiction, John Travolta accidentally blows off somebody’s head, and he and Samuel L Jackson spend a large part of the film cleaning it up. It’s a funny moment, but it comes from nowhere and is largely an excuse to introduce a cool new character (Mr Wolf), and watch the characters exchange some witty dialogue. There’s no dramatic point to the violence per se.

In In Bruges, however, a similarly violent moment, where a character first blows someone else’s head off followed by his own, is all at once a hilarious punchline, incredibly satisfying dramatically, and quietly brilliant in the way that puts an exclamation point on what is probably the key theme of the film.

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The underlying message of In Bruges is simple: violence is always absurd. While the violence is stylised in the film, it’s stylised in a way that is oddly distancing – it’s beautiful, in a way, but also surreal.

A good example of this is in a flashback sequence, deleted from the final film, where we see exactly how Harry avenged the death of Ken’s murdered wife. It was almost the correct decision to remove this scene – it’s a little too macabre and unpleasant even for a film this mischievously cynical – but it is an interesting example of the approach McDonagh takes towards to his characters and the acts of violence they commit. In the scene, the extreme vengeance employed by Harry makes almost no sense whatsoever on a purely practical level, and raises far more questions than it answers.

This is intentional, and a typical move by McDonagh, however – his attitude towards violence is that it shouldn’t make any sense, or be in some way justifiable. The violent acts perpetrated by the characters in his work are a direct result of joined-up thinking, and a strict adherence to a rigid dogma that will eventually come to doom them.

This theme of escalating stubbornness leading to disaster has run throughout McDonagh’s work. One of his famous early plays, The Lieutenant Of Inishmore, begins with the accidental death of a cat, and ends with a stage literally covered in viscera and body parts. And if you have even a passing knowledge of the very basics of Irish history over the past 200 years, you’ll know that this attitude has played a significant role in the deaths of thousands of Irish and British people.

In Bruges isn’t set in Ireland, but it is a very Irish film, with its two Irish leads demonstrating their heritage not just through the Father Ted-reminiscent banter, but also through the clear internal struggles instigated between their wired-in Catholic guilt, and the other ‘codes’ that they live by. Ray is a hitman by trade, who has no qualms about killing a priest, but by killing a child he has transgressed his own moral event horizon, and as a result is contemplating suicide.

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Ken, on the other hand, is trying to reconcile himself with the evil deeds he commits on behalf of a man he knows is an irredeemable psychopath, but he feels he must remain forever in his debt on account of what he did to avenge his wife. This self-flagellation is a very Irish Catholic trait – note that cockney WASP, Harry, has no such qualms about his work. He has his code, and he’ll never break it. If he does, he’ll end it all, on the spot, with no whinging, or even thinking about it, for that matter.

Throughout the film, the characters all have numerous points where a cooler head could prevail, and everybody could walk away, but they never take that opportunity. They’re inextricably connected to their own moral, ethical and principled constructs. The most telling moment in regards to this (although again, it also works purely as a gag) comes when the pregnant hotelier Marie interrupts a stand off between Harry and Ray, and begs them to put their guns aside and go their separate ways. “Don’t be stupid,” Harry snorts derisively, before getting a gleam in his eye. “This is the shootout.”

The message of In Bruges, then, and all of McDonagh’s work, is to identify gangsters, and men like Harry, and anyone who carries out violence in the name of something, as absurd, pathetic figues. The principled rogues of other gangster movies are sent up as oblivious dunderheads. Harry argues that a man must have a code, and the end of In Bruges is McDonagh saying: “This is where your ‘code’ gets you.”

It’s a deep, surprisingly sensitive film in this respect, but you don’t have to acknowledge any of this underlying stuff to thoroughly enjoy it as a piece of entertainment. It’s for this reason that In Bruges is such a successful piece of work, why it will live on in DVD and Blu-ray sales for many years, and it’s also the reason why it proved such a tough nut to crack for the marketers. The essence of it can’t be boiled down, because to label it as one thing is to neglect another of its key attributes that make it such a wonderful film.

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There are so many great lines and scenes I could talk about. I haven’t mentioned the funny and impossibly beautiful Clémence Poésy, or the hilarious performance from Jordan Prentice as the unfortunate Jimmy.  I haven’t mentioned ze alcoves, “You’re an inanimate object!” and “I’m gonna die now, I think.” I haven’t mentioned Colin Farrell’s brilliantly funny and almost certainly well-researched ‘coked-up’ acting. 

I haven’t mentioned the beautifully bittersweet ending. I could go on and on, because there’s so much going on in Bruges, and in In Bruges, and it all works. It’s a morality play, a dark comedy, a socio-political satire, a gangster thriller, a tourist board advert, and a gothic fairytale all at once.

Now… how is that not somebody’s fucking thing? 

See more of our Looking Back articles here.

Follow Paul Martinovic on Twitter here, or for more babble check out his blog here.

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