Could the trailers have been more misleading? Who would have thought that In Bruges would be reflective if not meditative, unrushed but never slow, humorous and heartfelt? I have Jeri alone to thank for apprising me of this film’s unsuspected virtues.
Trailers are notorious for being misrepresenting their products, but could the reviews, even positive ones, have been more misleading? Ed Caesar calls McDonagh “the Tarantino of theatre”, and Ray Greene insists that In Bruges is “very 1992”:
That, of course, was the year Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs played Sundance and established both the enduring and quixotic career of its writer/director and the genre In Bruges does its best to walk in the footsteps of, though with a European gait.
Only James Rocchi observes that it “turns into something different from the standard-issue post-Tarantino film”, calling it the “post-post-Tarantino” film — but in the same sentence he still compares it positively to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Even on the other side of opinion, Nate Bell offers a negative comparison not only to Tarantino but to the rightfully discredited Guy Ritchie and Troy Duffy. (Ouch!) But as one who basically has contempt for Tarantino’s screenplays, I find all such comparisons to In Bruges qualitatively false.
Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s playwriting background definitely comes through in his obsessive foreshadowing, but considering how many movies have promising beginnings only to fall apart in the third act, it’s wonderful to see a movie that feels like it is all of a piece. The only possible criticism is that In Bruges is too tightly scripted, too artfully crafted. Some of the dialogue can be anticipated a moment before it is said, but this is due to the characters being so well defined rather than the author’s voice dominating: on this as on all other counts, comparisons to Tarantino are completely unfounded.
Even an explicit reference to a classic 70s picture, which in Tarantino is always belabored by the characters but has minimal relevance to the film they are in, here is mentioned only in passing but is integral to McDonagh’s picture. The reference to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a throwaway line in a scene whose immediate (but not final) purpose is to establish the personality of a new character, rather than recite a transcript of fourth-grade film criticism.
In an age of movies often not much more than isolated vignettes strung together, it’s a delight to see minor characters actually used rather than discarded as soon as they’re introduced (the Canadians in the restaurant, the jealous ex-boyfriend). But lest the director be accused of tying everything together too neatly, he gives us the elephantine family who provide comic relief and need not reappear again. Yet even their presence is not completely gratuitous, for they draw attention to the difficulty of climbing the spiral staircase which features later — just like everything else in the first act, from Brendan Gleeson pointing his finger at Colin Farrell from the tower, to Farrell’s own flashback.
The casting of Farrell against type is the revelation of the year, like Sean Connery as a bumbling professor horrified by his son using a machine gun in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Who knew that Farrell could be not only so good, but so sympathetic as well? I felt like I had never seen this actor before, and I guess I haven’t. Even Ralph Fiennes playing the cousin, if not brother, of Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, is unexpectedly a sympathetic character rather than the obvious bad guy. Brendan Gleeson of course is the heart of film, and it is impossible not to love him.
In Bruges constantly toes the line between humor and pathy, a devastating emotional cocktail. The film is a macrocosm of its restaurant scene in which Farrell tells an off-color joke about Belgium, the scene quickly turns tragic, but after a short suspense turns comic again, then ends in violence. But despite Fiennes’ repeated verbal promises of a “shoot out”, there is no ultimate face off. The violence in McDonagh’s Bruges may be graphic but it is never gratuitous.