Monday, June 28, 2010
Critical Thinking: In Bruges (2008)
Critical Thinking is a column where I review something I've just watched (usually something I like). No other reason. It doesn't really need a name but I gave it one anyway, since it's different from Cheap Thrills, and I hear things on blogs should have names.
David Mamet once said that a film's developments should be both "surprising and inevitable". This strikes me as the perfect summation of good entertainment, and few movies embody this advice as clearly as Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, which I am revisiting thanks to its long-overdue debut on Blu-Ray here in the United States.
The setup: a pair of hitmen named Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) have just arrived in the Belgian city of Bruges (roughly pronounced "brooj"), on orders from their employer, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), following a botched job. Ken is perfectly pleased to look at all of the medieval architecture; Ray would rather kill himself. "Do you think this is good? Goin' around in a boat, looking at stuff?" he demands of his partner. Ken does. "Ray, you're about the worst tourist in the whole world."
Innocuously hidden within the first ten or fifteen minutes is a prime example of Mamet's theory. In case the reader hasn't already seen In Bruges, I won't go into too much detail, but Ken goes to the city's biggest tourist attraction: a giant tower in the center of the city. Unable to get rid of his coins (ten cents short), he pays in cash and heads to the top, where he spots Ray down below, only minutes away from getting into a fight with a group of overweight Americans. The relevant information is not only organically buried in scenes that are interesting and funny in and of themselves, but even the most forward-thinking viewer will find that when the scene's major callback occurs, McDonagh has already devised a way to subvert the audience's expectations.
Ray is depressed over the events that sent he and Ken to Bruges in the first place, and Farrell's performance is surprisingly emotional, and not just sadness. Ray is a man who is all surface and no center, without any room on the inside for feelings. He wears them all with childlike earnestness on his rubbery face, veering from delighted to grumpy at the drop of a hat. In particular, he is delighted by the luminous Chloë (a sweet and sexy Clémence Poésy), a drug dealer offering her services to crew on the film shooting in Bruges, and Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), a little person playing an ever-changing role in the film's elaborate, pretentious dream sequence. Ken, meanwhile, is placed in a position of action, and has a quiet internal debate about what decision would be best for everyone. Ken is both noble and a realist, two qualities that work against each other.
Many of the people I've shown the film to have labeled it a downer, but I feel that's failing to see the forest for the trees. It is more about the attitude with which the characters deal with the events of the film than it is the events themselves, and Ray particularly sets the tone. The last lines of dialogue can be interpreted as sad and distant, especially taken in with the music and idea of what's happened, but viewers who listen carefully should see the humor in it, particularly if they're an optimist. The film's comedy is also quite goofy. Ken snapping at Ray's refusal to go see an exhibit ("It's only Jesus Christ's blood! Of course you don't fuckin' hafta!"), Jimmy and his ludicrous prophecy about a "war between the blacks and the whites", and Ray's almost existential hatred of everything about Bruges and what it stands for are all a wonderful counterpoint to the film's artful cinematography and picturesque setting. And that's all before Fiennes' character actually appears on screen. His Harry is a misanthropic, bomb-like force of nature whom Ken accurately sums up as an eternal cunt. "I mean no disrespect, but you're a cunt. You're a cunt now, and you've always been a cunt. And the only thing that's going to change is that you're going to be an even bigger cunt," he says, straight to the man's face. Harry does not disagree.
I missed the movie in theaters thanks to Focus Features' misguided ad campaign that tried to cram McDonagh's darkly witty farce into the same crowd-pleasing package as Guy Ritchie's rollicking Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch. McDonagh's style is generally much more naturalistic, with his only real "movie-esque" flourishes coming at the end, including an absolutely perfect sequence set to Luke Kelly's "On Raglan Road", and a climax so logical it practically seems like reflex rather than writing, yet so nutty you can't believe you're actually seeing it; in other words, a vivid illustration of Mamet's advice in action.
The Blu-Ray is a disappointment. The A/V quality is fine and a visible step up from the DVD in all regards, but there are actually extras missing from the SD-DVD. Since I don't believe I've gone back in time to the birth of the format, there's really no excuse for this, particularly when I was hoping Universal might see fit to track down McDonagh for a commentary in light of the film's Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay, and perhaps throw in "Six Shooter", his Academy Award-winning short film that also stars Gleeson. Clearly, my sights were set too high.
[In Bruges on IMDb]