Saturday, 29 March 2008

In Bruges, dir. & written by Martin McDonagh (2007)

I don't think that I ever want to meet Martin McDonagh. I don't want to meet him because I do not want to know what a man like that is really like. A genius. An extraordinary playwright, who turns his hand to making a short film, and wins an Oscar, and who turns his hand to his first feature and comes up with In Bruges. It is not easy to take all of that in.

In Bruges is quite simply a marvellous film. I went with no expectations; I'd read no reviews, and heard one good report from a friend. I knew that Colin Farrell was in it, which slightly put me off, given the silly public profile he has. And then he goes and pulls of a performance that was sensitive and wonderful.

Two hit-men, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) hide it out in Bruges after a botched job that has resulted in the death of a child, an innocent bystander. They are to await instructions from the boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), but neither have any idea why they've been sent. Eventually, Harry telephones Ken and orders that Ray be killed, for killing the child. "You can't go 'round killing children, it's that simple", he says later in the film. But Ray has already hit rock bottom, and just as Ken is about to shoot him, he sees Ray lift a gun to his head. He stops him just in time, Ray sees Ken with the gun, and realizes that a hit has been ordered on him. They sit and talk it out. This is one of the very powerful scenes in the film, where Ray explains that he cannot go on living with himself for the death of the child. He breaks down, crumbles really, and it's quite something to see how Farrell controls it. Ken wants to give Ray another chance, a chance to make things right, to do something good and so lets him go. He then rings Harry to say that the job has not been done, and gets himself washed and dressed awaiting the furious, murderous, psychotic Harry to come and kill him. The way that Ken resigns to Harry is heartbreaking and I think that Gleeson does it beautifully.

There are several more twists and turns, and I won't go any further because they are rather enjoyable. That's what's so interesting about this film. There's a huge element of caper about it: Harry says to the hotel owner, as he and Ray, armed, are confronting eachother: "This is the shootout!". That kind of funny, meta-fictional, postmodern cleverness is nodded at, but not allowed to overpower. He's actually just telling her what they're doing, not making a comment on the characters' fictional self-awareness. It's something that postmodern never is, sincere. The film is shot in the beautiful city of Bruges, and the setting is a huge part of the story. Ray hates it, Ken loves it, and Harry has sent them there because of a childhood visit he remembers with nostalgia. The city is almost another character. McDonagh has taken the quiet anonymity of Belgium, more precisely its best preserved medieval city, as this wonderful, unnoticed, ancient place. Ray, narrating at the beginning, says that he didn't even know where Bruges was, there's a pause as the audience asks themselves the same, and then he says: "It's in Belgium". Harry's wife has the same question before he leaves, "Where is Bruges anyway?".

I suppose that is what the film is about, places we don't go, or places we don't notice anymore. Ancient places. Like the extraordinary scene where Ray and Ken walk around the art gallery enjoying the torturous hellish Bosch and those images of death handing a note to a man, his time is up. The literalness of their lives, shooting people for money, is given this deeper texture through the allegorical figures in the paintings and they are faced with deep questions of justice, innocence and guilt. We are not being asked to judge the two as hitmen, since we're assured that most of the people they kill are bad, or have killed themselves. Even the priest has done something. But the innocence life of the boy can never be brought back, the injustice, the sin of it is somehow absolute, irrevocable. And Harry orders the hit on Ray not because he's dangerous to him, but out of honour. Ray killed an innocent boy and so must die. Ken knows that he must sacrifice his life to give Ray a chance, and it is his love for Harry and his sense of honour that moves Harry and prevents him from killing Ken. And then Harry, the most furious man in the film, perhaps turns out the be the most honourable man in it.

Ancient, beautiful, unnoticed places: honour, justice, innocence, guilt. Like Bruges.

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