In Bruges Review

Hitmen Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) arrive in Bruges (rhymes with "rouge") under uncertain pretenses and with a great deal of ambiguity. A voiceover immediately reveals something went wrong in London and they're here to lay low. The length of stay is to be determined by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), leaving an antsy Ray to bounce around the Belgian locale he immediately dislikes and the more laid back Ken to take in some of its beautiful old town attractions. At an unexpected point, sometime after the viewer gathers that Ray has an odd fascination with midgets, but before he karate chops one, the film abruptly flashes back to his first hit. It's an experience that's left the Irishman deeply troubled, and it will prove to be of vital importance for the lives and deaths of these three characters.

In Bruges marks the welcomed feature debut of writer/director Martin McDonagh, whose short film Six Shooter won an Academy Award and who's perhaps most associated with a series of critically acclaimed plays, including The Pillowman. From what I gather, In Bruges falls very much in line with McDonagh's previous work. It's a dark exploration of consequences, with often mean-spirited, profane humour and occasional violence that's given little gravity or contemplation. It's also quite good. Where the film most excels is in not only keeping the viewer constantly interested (a more difficult task than it sounds in modern cinema), but also in its refusal to become complacent. McDonagh has fashioned something remarkably slippery here. It's just a small shame that no one really understood how to market a film that defies easy categorisation while still appearing to fit snugly within a little genre trap.

The hitman black comedy thing has been done a few times already. Grosse Pointe Blank, You Kill Me, The Matador, even Pulp Fiction. Universal, at least in the U.S., seemed intent on tying In Bruges into being like that type of film. It's, of course, not. There's a great deal of humour undoubtedly in the picture, but calling it a comedy is deceiving. McDonagh accomplishes what frustratingly few writers have been able to do by turning profanity that never flinches into laughs that are more than just transitional filler. The humour largely consists of repeatedly impeccable line readings from Farrell, whose comic timing is close to a revelation, and dark to the point of perverse dialogue. Plus there's that karate chop. Undoubtedly with Ben Kingsley's Sexy Beast performance in mind, Fiennes, too, excels at smart dimwit comedy, the kind yokelised by the Coen brothers and rarely attempted by other filmmakers. Gleeson is excellent as well, though, by now, this is to be expected from the actor. The resistance of easy slapstick or cursing for the sake of doing so, two cardinal sins of mainstream movie stupidity, go far in setting the film's humour apart. These are laughs that almost always come at the expense of someone else, often viciously so, and completely without apology.

But, again, In Bruges isn't really a comedy. It's not entirely a drama either, though. One scene to the next moves from twisted, almost disturbed humour to continuing on with the main plot. McDonagh does well in not allowing the viewer to get a handle on what kind of film this is. The tonal shift is almost disorienting in its frequency. It's a thin line for a filmmaker to walk, especially an unseasoned one, to adroitly balance dry, accented humour with dry, accented violence and dry, accented drama. In that respect, this is a more than admirable effort. If there's any reasonable complaint to be made it's that the ending takes itself too seriously and part one of the chase leading up to it goes horribly wrong in almost every way imaginable (music and editing being the main offenders). These shortcomings, along with McDonagh's unspoken homage/thieving from Harold Pinter's play The Dumb Waiter, are, I think, forgivable, if legitimate concerns.

The Pinter influence seems to inform the film more than directly control it. Like The Dumb Waiter, part of In Bruges deftly approaches the existential impact of two men waiting around in a purgatory-like holding pattern. McDonagh hangs this out there without letting it overwhelm his film. The big downsize of life gets shuffled into the background, but it's merely on the line with sharp humour free from political correctness and an increasingly involving (and tragic) main story. If there's anything McDonagh seems intent on keeping in check, it's ambition. His film hardly desires to thoroughly explore the loss of innocent life and its consequences, instead remaining content to breach a subject that's utterly impossible to demystify. Because this is done so well, only getting somewhat clumsy in that too dramatic ending, McDonagh gets away with creating a theme he can't fully satisfy. It's enough that he just presents the idea tucked inside a cruelly hilarious, always entertaining piece of popular moviemaking.

The Disc

In Bruges is released in R1 by Universal and its subsidiary Focus Features. The dual-layered disc amounts to a solid presentation (once you get past some truly terrible quotes and an inane tag line on the jacket) of a film unfairly neglected in cinemas.

The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, reproduced with extreme clarity and cleanness. Much of the film takes place at night time, but the darkness is handled quite well, as is the entirety of the picture's wonderful cinematography. Detail is strikingly sharp at times. I saw no major instances of edge enchancement or artifacts and the progressive transfer is a very strong one, aided by a high bitrate. Colours look authentic and impressively rendered.

An English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is fine, but not ideal in terms of volume level. There's some whispering early on, and combined with the thickly accented speech, I had to turn on the subtitles. Not a huge complaint, obviously, but it's always annoying when a gunshot blows your eyelids wide open because you had to turn the volume up higher than normal in order to hear the dialogue. Those less picky about that sort of thing will find the audio more than acceptable. It is largely dialogue, but the rare gunshots are commanding and Carter Burwell's excellent score (aside from that ridiculous metal thumping everything out of its skin during part of the climactic chase) is perfectly crisp. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 dub is also available, as are white coloured subtitles in French, Spanish, and English for the hearing impaired. All the extra features are subtitled, as well.

Those supplements are a nice grab bag of standard-type new release filler, as well as a few extras that do stand out. A large collection of 11 deleted and 2 extended scenes (18:20) is worthwhile despite being presented without anamorphic enhancement. Most of these don't really fit in the film as is, but they're still frequently funny, especially one particular bit with Ralph Fiennes on a train. The deleted scenes are definitely better than the gag reel (6:00), which isn't so much intended to make the viewer laugh as show the actors cracking up on set. A fairly perfunctory, but good by those standards, making-of featurette entitled "When in Bruges" (13:49) has interviews with director Martin McDonagh and the main actors. McDonagh discusses the genesis of his idea and you get a hint that everyone realised they were making a pretty good movie here instead of commercial indie trash.

Next, "Strange Bruges" (7:28) features the same principals this time talking about the Belgian town where the film was shot and set. These three featurettes are all in anamorphic widescreen, but "A Boat Trip Around Bruges" (5:42) is not. The extra-thick black bars leave room for large font text to detail some history and trivia about the town while a first-person camera boats through its canals. It's short, but pretty interesting all the same. Finally, "F**king Bruges" (1:36) is, you guessed it, a swear reel where the most prominent word in the script is shown being said over and over for a minute and a half. The film's trailer is absent among the extras, though skippable previews for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the television show Psych, Hellboy 2, and Doomsday all begin when the DVD is inserted.

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