Ciarán Hinds is in this film, but it’s a very short scene, an uncredited cameo. I knew it starred Colin Farrell as a not-very-bright hit man, and I assumed it was yet another action flick glorifying gangsters, guns and violence. And so it fell to the Long-Suffering Husband to watch In Bruges on his own. Although he recommended it highly, I still had no plans to see it until he informed me that Mr. H. did not, as I mistakenly believed, die in the first five minutes. After that, I decided to see the mise en scène for myself.
A few spoilers
In Bruges turns out to be a well-constructed exploration of what happens if you f*** up really bad, and commit a crime that is truly beyond the pale. Is there any hope for redemption, or are you condemned to spend the rest of your life… in Bruges? One of the film’s recurring jokes is that Colin Farrell’s hit man Ray utterly detests the charming city of Bruges, where he has been sent for a respite after a bungled job. What he doesn’t realize is that he would be just as miserable anywhere, given the horror and remorse he feels at having killed an innocent little boy at his prayers. (That he also murdered a priest is no problem whatsoever.)
Ray’s fate is disputed by light and dark angels. Improbably, the advocate for redemption is his fellow hit man Ken, a seasoned expert who has accepted his lot in life, and usually performs his heinous work with equanimity. When his boss Harry decrees that Ray must pay the price for being a child-killer, Ken initially agrees to do the deed. Yet he changes his mind at the last moment, when he sees Ray put a gun to his own head. Ken suddenly understands that Ray can be redeemed, and he risks the wrath of Harry to help his feckless friend.
Colin Farrell is disturbingly convincing as the puerile dimwit Ray. There’s a subplot involving a dwarf (Jordan Prentice), an actor in a local film production. Ray seems obsessed with Jimmy the dwarf (whom he insists on calling a “midget”) and with the likelihood that Jimmy will commit suicide because his size keeps him isolated from the rest of humanity. It’s a potent if twisted metaphor for Ray’s own predicament.
Brendan Gleeson is quietly impressive as Ken, a thoughtful assassin who sets out to educate himself about medieval Bruges. It says something for McDonagh’s storytelling prowess and Gleeson’s acting that together they are able to make you feel sympathetic toward Ken, even admire him. The writing for Ken’s part in the latter half of the film is particularly sharp, with some unexpected twists.
Most riveting and hilarious of all is Ralph Fiennes as Harry, the hot-tempered Cockney gangster who orders Ray’s death. Fiennes’ accent has to be heard to be believed, but imagine him gently chiding a thug who complains that Ray has blinded him:
Up to the point where Harry enters the tale, it is realistic enough. The profound sadness of Ray and Ken’s crime is contrasted with the bathetic comedy of their being forced to share a hotel room and getting on each other’s nerves. But Harry, it turns out, is an improbably romantic thug. After the botched hit, he sends Ray and Ken to Bruges in the misguided hope that Ray will enjoy a “fairytale” vacation before his permanent exit (and he’s amusingly furious when Ray reviles his favorite city). Like a comic Vito Corleone, Harry has his own, inflexible code of honor, which doesn’t permit the killing of children. His face-off with Ken, his friend and disobedient henchman, is both terrifying and amusing, as both men accept the terms of their absurd contest.
I won’t give away the end. This film is worth watching despite the considerable violence it depicts. If nothing else, you will enjoy the beautiful scenery of Bruges, Harry’s paradise and Ray’s hellhole. Bruges, it seems, is a state of mind.