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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

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In Bruges is a vicious black comedy that is by turns hilarious, equal-opportunity offensive, and bloody violent. It’s not for the squeamish or those sensitive to all things politically correct. For everybody else, it’s quite a hoot.

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Gleeson and Farrell are good blokes who went a little too far
Gleeson and Farrell are good blokes who went a little too far

Ken and Ray are two hitmen directed by their boss, Harry, to take some time off and keep a low profile in Bruges, Belgium, after botching a job in London. They’re a couple good blokes, really, it’s just that Ray (Colin Farrell, Cassandra’s Dream) made a nasty situation, killing a priest, much, much worse with some very tragic collateral damage.

A little unnerved by his mistake, Ray is a tad on edge and has no interest in being in Bruges. As he puts it, if he was born on a farm and retarded, maybe he’d be impressed. But instead, he was born in Dublin and he thinks none too kindly of Belgium as a whole.

Ken (Brendan Gleeson, Beowulf), on the other hand, is keen on checking out the sights while they’re there. After all, Bruges is the most immaculately preserved medieval city in Belgium. Some have even dubbed it one of the most romantic cities in Europe, but it’s not the ideal place to be on a rainy day while traveling alone, or traveling with another bloke for that matter.

Further cramping their style, Ken and Ray are booked into a single room with two twin beds for two weeks. It’s Christmas and that’s the last room available in town.

After settling in, they start to wonder. Are they really in Bruges to keep a low profile? They could do that in suburban London if that was the case. Being sent to Bruges is “over elaborate,” particularly in comparison to a place like Croydon, so maybe they’re actually being put in position for another assignment.

Pints in Purgatory

What follows is a sometimes ferocious pageant of stereotypes, misconceptions, and other biases that at least to some degree get resolved and righted in their holders’ minds by the end of the shenanigans. In addition to Ken, Ray, and Harry, the players in this game of verbal jousting and eye gouging include Jimmy, a dwarf acting in a freaky Dutch movie; Chloe, a cute Belgian girl who shags male tourists then robs them of their money in order to support her drug habit; Eirik, Chloe’s sorta boyfriend; and Marie, a hotel proprietor.

But, even as Ray and company grouse about different people, leaving virtually no country, nationality, race, or stature unscathed, at its core In Bruges has a very simple message on its mind: appearances can be deceiving.

The perfect example of how writer/director Martin McDonagh shuffles the deck comes during Ray and Chloe’s dinner date. Ray tells her straight off that he kills people for a living. Chloe, whom he met on the dwarf’s movie set, tells him she’s a drug dealer. Naturally, based on their good looks and the restaurant’s pleasant atmosphere, they assume each is lying — or, more precisely, sarcastically joking around.

Instead, they’re being brutally honest. And they each think the other is really kinda nice.

It’s devilishly funny, weaving the subtle with the ostentatious in a way that Sacha Baron Cohen and Quentin Tarantino certainly dream about.

A Taste for the Theatrical

McDonagh is the playwright behind highly acclaimed works including The Pillowman and The Beauty Queen of Leenane and he knows a thing or two about staging. He is also quite comfortable working with dark subject matter.

Both concepts take center stage in In Bruges and McDonagh shows a sense of storytelling mastery as the characters converge on Bruges’ grand square for the climax. Without getting into the details of the whys and wherefores (and thereby spoiling the fun), Ray and Chloe embrace and kiss oblivious to Ken and Harry walking right past them. To see it is to understand the beauty of the setup.

Then there’s also a humdinger of a scene in which an assassination is scotched by the would-be perpetrator when he’s angered by his target (unwittingly) trying to beat him to the punch by attempting to commit suicide. It’s a turn-on-a-dime moment that is very funny and works extremely well.

As a playwright and now a feature-length movie director, McDonagh understands the importance of casting and In Bruges benefits from the terrific ensemble that’s been assembled.

But, bless him, Colin Farrell deserves extra kudos for proving himself as an exceptional character actor. A lot of his movies have been klunky (The Recruit, Alexander), but the guy knows how to shine when the machismo is allowed to take a back seat to the quirky (Intermission, Daredevil).

It’s not an easy thing to make a total arse almost likeable, but Farrell pulls it off. And McDonagh and Farrell keep a goofy edge seeping through the overt anger right up to the end, when Ray’s thinking to himself that he doesn’t want to die. He’s been through a lot and he’s made some bad choices, but he knows he could make amends if given the chance.

But, then again, Ray thinks maybe he is already dead and the heavenly jury has sent to him Hell. After all, he’s in Bruges.