Friday, February 29, 2008

In Bruges: Caught between heaven and hell

In Bruges (2008) • View trailer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and pervasive violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.29.08

At first blush, In Bruges appears to be a droll entry in the British wiseguy noir genre, very much in the mold of, say, Guy Ritchie's Snatched.

Contract killer Ken (Brendan Gleeson) insists that younger colleague Ray (Colin
Farrell) should make the most of their enforced stay in the quaintly picturesque
Belgian city of Bruges, but the latter can't bend himself into a tourist-y mind
set. Sadly, both men soon will learn that their presence in Bruges is mere
preamble to some highly unpleasant doings. Life is like that, in British
gangster flicks.
Our protagonists — definitely not "heroes," in any sense of the word — are contract assassins Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), who've been ordered to lay low in Bruges, Belgium, in the aftermath of a hit gone terribly awry. They're the original Mutt 'n' Jeff pair: Ken the older, sturdily built, sad-faced, soft-spoken and philosophical sophisticate; Ray the callow, wiry, cheerfully vulgar and shamelessly ignorant dilettante.

They're also quite funny, both individually and as a unit. Despite the absence of common ground, theirs is an oddly intimate relationship, Ken serving as overly patient father to Ray's impetuous surrogate son. Ken, wanting to make the most of their surroundings as they kill time, insists on brochure-guided walking tours and slow boat rides through the canals that interlace the city, the better to appreciate Bruges' utterly gorgeous, fairy-tale architecture and history.

And did I mention that this story takes place during Christmas? (I've no doubt this film will boost the city's tourist trade.)

Ray, petulant as a 5-year-old, couldn't care less. Farrell screws his face up into the picture of abject misery: huddled into a jacket, hands stuffed into pockets, eyes squinched in such bored anguish that his bushy black brows blend together, seeming to perch like some small furry beast on his lower forehead.

Ray shamelessly mocks the picture-postcard setting with language so coarse that we can't help but laugh. ("If I'd grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn't. So it doesn't.")

But this younger man also is being eaten by something awful: a memory that reduces him to shattered despair. It has to do with precisely how catastrophically wrong that previous job went, and writer/director Martin McDonagh's film shifts into an entirely different gear once this information is revealed.

Although the odd encounters with eccentric supporting characters continue, the mood suddenly becomes more twisted menace than macabre black comedy. It's like being thrown into a room crowded with people, all of whom have the manners, morals and unpredictable temperament of the sinister master of ceremonies from Cabaret. Very unsettling.

Try as we might, we cannot step back and view these people as exaggerated grotesques, an atmospheric safety valve that allowed us to survive something like (for example) Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.

Mind you, such films aren't intended for the unsuspecting general public in the first place. In Bruges, like its genre companions, is horrifically violent and unapologetically amoral: as savage a view of humanity as anybody could imagine, the story's cartoonish qualities notwithstanding. Proceed at your own risk.

No, for all the surface comedy and quaintly anachronistic codes of ethics that drive most conversations and interpersonal dynamics, the film's reservoir of superficial wit gradually becomes a deep well of black despair. It's a riveting exercise, because no matter how bleak things become — and that would be very bleak — Gleeson and Farrell are impossible to ignore. If anything, they become more interesting as their plight becomes more dire.

Gleeson's Ken, able to make the most of any situation, also carries the burden of old-fashioned integrity. This cuts both ways: It gives him a clarity of purpose, but also forces judgment calls when his loyalty to one person might supersede that to somebody else. Gleeson's weathered features reveal the quiet anguish of many such decisions, and he'll shortly be forced to make another.

Farrell's Ray, in stark contrast, is a creature of random impulse: quick to annoy and just as quick to withdraw into grim melancholy. Farrell sells all these mood shifts, while also adding a roguish charm that quickly attracts the first young woman he meets: Chloë (Clémence Poésy), a bright-eyed coquette with her own concealed agenda, encountered when Ken and Ray stumble across a nighttime film shoot in one corner of Bruges.

Ray promises to tell Chloë what he does if she'll have dinner with him the following evening; she accepts, and they subsequently wind each other up in a posh little restaurant. He jokingly reveals that he kills people, knowing she won't take him seriously; she whimsically insists that she supplies drugs to the film crew. And we suddenly wonder — as Ray does, searching Chloë's eyes for clarity — is she also actually telling the truth?

McDonagh gets an ambiguously captivating performance out of Poésy, and we spend the entire film wondering if she's one of the story's wayward souls who deserves redemption.

Probably not. The only true innocent here is Thekla Reuten's Marie, the spunky, pregnant owner of the darling hotel where Ken and Ray are forced to share a single room with twin beds.

The character landscape becomes more surreal with the arrival of Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), a disgruntled "little person" who seems to be the lead in the film-within-the-film. We also subsequently meet Chloë's ex-boyfriend and an oddly sophisticated underground gun dealer with a tendency to mangle the English language. (He loves the word "alcove.")

Incidental tourists and Bruges citizens also come and go, none accidentally: Perhaps reflecting the city's compact, enclosed universe, McDonagh has a method and reason for everything. Whether by coincidence or celestial design, even casual encounters loop around and later become significant.

The result is an impressive feature debut for the British filmmaker, who won an Academy Award for his 2004 short subject, Six Shooter.

Events click into lethal high gear with the introduction of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), the gang boss who has sent our boys to Bruges. Harry is this saga's ruthless mastermind, and Fiennes actually makes him evil enough to mask the severity of Ken and Ray's own awful misdeeds. Harry is pure, undiluted fury, and Fiennes is flat-out scary. (He seems to be trying to out-do Ben Kingsley, in Sexy Beast. He damn near succeeds.)

The story's core metaphor — revealed when Ray, reluctantly dragged into the Groeninge Museum, finds one Hieronymus Bosch painting that catches his fancy — revolves around the younger man's preoccupation with heaven, hell and purgatory ... particularly with the latter, which he offhandedly describes as "the place of waiting."

This, then, is what Bruges is for Ray: the place of waiting. And until he's somehow able to move on — spiritually, if not physically — he'll be stuck there. Indeed, as he eventually learns, you can't leave purgatory until you're allowed to do so.

That his purgatory should be such a gorgeous place is precisely McDonagh's point: We each define our own heaven, hell and region in between. In Bruges thus becomes a jumped-up morality tale, its eccentric characters actually archetypes who serve quite specific purposes. Embracing this point of view makes the narrative even more intriguing, and the densely layered performances from Gleeson and Farrell certainly support such a reading.

On the other hand, maybe it's just a flashy, violent bit of grotesque Euro-trash: an appalling diversion, all style and no substance.

It's like the dinner scene with Farrell and Poésy: The ambiguity is fascinating.

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