It really has been a fascinating experience watching the ebbs and flows of cinema during the course of this project. Last week I was tasked with picking a favorite film of 2007, a year that contains three of my favorite films of all time, leading to a pretty excruciating choice. And, weirdly, I then move on to 2008, a year that really doesn’t have many stand-out films for me. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles, feast of famine. Which, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least as far as this project is concerned. Because it’s a whole lot easier to pick a favorite film of a given year when I’m not absolutely inundated with masterpieces. Looking at the films of 2008, there are a whole bunch of movies that I really like, movies that have quite a bit of nostalgia wrapped up in them, reminding me of my early college years, but there’s one film that pretty easily took the top spot for me, Martin McDonagh’s terrific In Bruges. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of other great movies from 2008, just none that end up reaching the personal heights of In Bruges. I think the most obvious choice, especially considering my weekly obsession with Batman, would be to discuss the biggest film of 2008, the Dark Knight. And, I’m not going to sit here and tell you all that I don’t love that movie. But, every time I revisit it I’m really struck by how it’s been somewhat tainted by everything that it has wrought. It’s still a really effective film, but it’s legacy is pretty terrible, and I find myself increasingly keeping it at arms length. And, keeping on a superhero bent, we could have talked about how 2008 was the genesis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the delivery system for some of the most enjoyable films of the past decade, especially the original Iron Man. The less said about the Incredible Hulk the better, though. Or, hey, we could have talked about one of my all-time favorite Pixar movies, the wonderful Wall-E, which I’m kind of in the minority of enjoying the entirety of, instead of just the first half. We also could have talked about some of the finest Coen Brothers goofiness that they’ve ever made, the truly special Burn After Reading. I’m kind of curious to revist Tropic Thunder, a movie I loved at the time, to see if it holds up at all, or has devolved into a complete mess. I feel like it’s honestly a fifty/fifty chance on that one. I could also have taken up even more digital ink to defend Quantum of Solace, a very noble cause. But, at the end of the day I decided to go with my heart, and talk about In Bruges, a film that me and my college friends got to attend a press screening of after winning tickets no one else wanted, and which has always had a special place in my heart.
In Bruges is the first film of Martin McDonagh, an Irish playwright known for his black comedies, frequently taking satirical looks at modern Irish society. But, after McDonagh decided to try his hand with filmmaking by making a short film called Six Shooter, he appears to have gotten bitten by the film-bug. Six Shooter went on to win a BAFTA, convincing McDonagh to begin work on a feature film debut. And, after spending a weekend in the Belgian city of Bruges, he started to craft the story of two hitmen hiding out in the picturesque city, awaiting their final judgement. He was able to film the movie in Bruges itself, even getting the city to keep Christmas decorations up for the entire shooting process to keep with the time-frame of the story, which resulted in the city having to post signs informing tourists why there were seemingly anachronistic decorations all over town. And, this whole situation didn’t really seem to go over well with the people of Bruges, resulting in the mayor of the city putting a moratorium on films being made in the city after not really taking kindly to the way that the city was portrayed in the film, which is pretty fair. McDonagh seemed to initially want to tell a sprawling story, complete with quite a bit of backstory for the central characters, even filming some of it, but eventually changed his mind, cutting the film down to a lean running time that kept all the essentials, making a film that really packed a serious punch. And, it was pretty well accepted. The film got good reviews, and ended up making some decent money, especially considering it’s low budget, and ended up introducing McDonagh to a whole new audience, launching his film career. And I have adored it ever since I scored tickets to it’s local premiere after winning some tickets at a different movie screening on my college campus. That story, and the inflated sense of importance that I felt getting to go to a pre-screening, perhaps helped color some of my opinions at the time, but whenever I’ve gone back to this film I’ve been just as charmed by it’s offbeat sensibilities and razor sharp script, despite some dialogue choices aging particularly badly.
In Bruges is the story of two professional hitmen, Ray and Ken, who are forced to flee from London and hide out in the Belgian city of Bruges, awaiting word from their boss, Harry waters. Ray is shaken after the hit, his first, went particularly badly, resulting in the accidental death of a child, and seems completely uninterested in the town on Bruges, while Ken does his best to keep the increasingly moody Ray under control. The two make their best of their time in Bruges, sight-seeing and trying to fight boredom while waiting for word from Harry that it’s safe to return to London, or possibly for orders for another hit in Bruges itself. And, while wandering the streets of Bruges, Ray ends up stumbling up on a movie being filmed, and meets the dwarf actor Jimmy, and a woman named Chloe who is assisting in the production. Ray ends up getting a date with Chloe, despite Ken’s insistence that they’re supposed to be keeping a low profile and staying inside as much as possible.But, Ray eventually makes a deal with Ken, promising to go do all the tourist stuff that Ken wants to during the day so that he can go out with Chloe at night. And, after a somewhat awkward date, including Ray beating up a loud American couple, they end up returning to Chloe’s apartment to have sex. But, things take a turn when Chloe’s ex-boyfriend Eirik shows up, intending to rob Ray, which is apparently a scam they pull all the time. Ray ends up blinding Eirick with a gun firing blanks, and Chloe leaves to take care of him, leaving Ray unattended in her apartment with all the drugs that she deal on the side, which he helps himself to.
Meanwhile, Ken has managed to talk to Harry on the phone, being told that he’ll receive orders in the morning, giving Ray and Ken a night to spend however they want, which leads to them spending the evening with Jimmy and some prostitutes, getting increasingly drunk and high. But, that’s all ruined the next morning when Ken is given his orders by Harry. And they’re to kill Ray. Harry explains that, according to his own personal integrity, killing a child should immediately end that person’s life. And, since Ray didn’t kill himself, it’s now up to Ken to do the job. He obviously doesn’t want to kill Ray, but ends up preparing for it anyway. He meets with a contact of Harry’s to get a gun, and heads out to find Ray, and is pointed to a park by the kindly woman who runs the bed and breakfast that they’re staying in, telling Ken that Ray seemed morose, especially regarding her coming child. And, it turns out that that’s because Ray is preparing to kill himself, the depression of the child’s killing weighing too heavily on him. Ken ends up spotting him, and stops him before he can go through with it, showing Ray when Ken had initially intended to do. But, Ken doesn’t want to kill Ray. Instead he puts him on a train and hopefully sends him to a new life. Ken then calls Harry to give him the news, causing Harry to fly into a rage and come to Bruges himself to sort things out.
Unfortunately, Ray’s escape doesn’t go well. Because the couple he assaulted in the restaurant, who are actually Canadian, just so happen to be on the train, and inform the police of Ray’s assault. So, He’s arrested and sent back to Bruges, where he’s put out on bail to Chloe who comes to his rescue. The two then proceed to have a second date, while Ken is busy dealing with Harry. Harry is absolutely furious that Ken betrayed him, and makes it clear that there are going to be punishments for both Ken and Ray. Ken ends up convincing Harry to go to a nearby tower with him so they can discuss things, and end up largely burying the hatchet. Ken still gets shot in the leg, but he isn’t killed. However, Eirik ends up spotting Ray and Chloe, and in a jealous rage goes to tell Harry, who he met at the same gun-dealer Ken went to. And, when Harry realizes that Ray is still in Bruges, he is put back into a state of rage, and shoots Ken before heading out to kill Ray. However, in a final act of friendship, Ken throws himself from the tower, giving Ray a signal that things are going wrong, and giving him a chance to flee from Harry. The two end up having a madcap chase through the streets of Bruges, before they eventually stumble back upon the film set. Harry ends up shooting Ray several times, and in the process ends up killing Jimmy, who was dressed as a school-boy for his role. But, Harry doesn’t know that, and assumes that he just killed a child. So, following his own moral code, he kills himself on the streets of Bruges as an ambulance arrives to try and save Ray’s life as he thinks on the afterlife, and an eternity in Bruges.
Over the many months that I’ve been doing this Cinematic Century project, I feel like it’s pretty easy for a reader to get a pretty good understanding of my tastes in movies. I’m a pretty simple guy. So, a story about two sad yet sassy assassins hiding out and contemplating morality and the afterlife in a picturesque setting while spouting off clever dialogue is kind of a movie custom made for me. And, ever since I first saw it, I’ve loved it. There are elements that haven’t aged well, and I feel like each of McDonagh’s subsequent have kind of been diminishing returns, perhaps showing that McDonagh’s tricks and quirks work well the first time, but less so the more we see of it. But, regardless, In Bruges is a movie I love revisiting, confirming that it’s not just the fact of my odd first experience with it coloring my memory. Because it really is a wonderfully crafted film. There are certain movies whose scripts are insanely well-crafted, just intricate Swiss watches of plot, and this film really is one of them. Everything lines up and plays out beautifully, a real piece of wonderful narrative. Plus, is a hilarious movie with a lot of heart, featuring some truly great performances from two of my favorite actors. Colin Farrell is an actor who has kind of struggled to find the right project, rarely working quite right as a leading man, while never getting the sort of weirdo character actor roles that he always seems to knock out of the park, such as this role. And, Brendan Gleeson is just one of those actors who always seems to effortlessly natural, giving us complex but real characters, and the somber but loving Ken is one of his finest roles. Two lovable sadsack characters don’t seem like the natural fit for a movie about assassins, but it’s kind of what I love most about this movie.
I’ve discussed quite a few crime movies over the course of this Cinematic century project, since it’s one of my favorite genres of storytelling, and through that I’ve discussed a whole lot of different types of criminals. But, one of the things that keeps me coming back to In Bruges is the way that it portrays Ray and Ken, two men who unarguably do terrible thing, they’re hitmen after all, but who really have to reckon with it all. So often criminals in movies exist to be cautionary tales, or weird escapist fantasies. The criminals of the Code era were designed to have their lives crash down around them so that good hard-working Americans will be assuaded from following in their footsteps, as the puritanical Code decreed. And, the more modern criminals get to live large and go out in a blaze of glory, living the lives they want, and making it look damn good while they do it. But, Ray and Ken are just doing a job, and it really fucks them up. Ray spends the entire film realizing that the action movie profession he thought he fell into actually has real and terrible repercussions, and struggles to deal with that. He thought being a hitman would be awesome, and his first hit accidentally led to the death of a child, something that he fully realizes will ruin his entire life. And Ken recognizes that this isn’t a glamorous life, it’s one that he’s been forced into due to extenuating circumstances, and that has largely crippled his life. These are two men who are leading lives that would normally be in massive blockbusters, but who instead have to sit around realizing that they may be putting more bad into the world than good, and thus may have wasted their lives. And, it somehow does all of that without feeling like a rambling lecture on ethics.
In Bruges was written and directed by Martin McDonagh and released by Focus Features, 2008.
Categories: Cinematic Century