It's weird to call a film that features ruthless hit men, brutal gun violence and the tragic death of a child charming. But that's just what most of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's inky black comedy is.
Much like his theatrical work — of which Pillowman is the current rage — McDonagh's debut film mixes mordant comedy, introspection and shocking drama into a strange and disconcerting brew. When's the last time you saw a guilt-ridden Irish hit man argue about the coming race wars with a pair of coked-up Dutch prostitutes and a bigoted dwarf?
In Bruges features the kind of willfully politically incorrect humor that inspires profane laughs and a guilty conscience, leaving you to wonder: Who's more messed up? Me or the filmmaker?
It all starts with a fish-out-of water premise: A pair of hit men are ordered to cool their heels in the fairytale-like city of Bruges (pronounced "brooshz") after a job goes terribly wrong. Whatever happened isn't at first clear, but young Ray (Colin Farrell) is clearly worse for the wear. Twitchy and haunted, he hates the idyllic Belgian town and ends up picking fights with tourists and desperately trying to befriend a dwarf film actor. His one bright moment is an impending date with a sexy young drug dealer (French actress Clemence Poesy).
In contrast, Ray's more experienced partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) is determined to enjoy their unexpected R & R, embracing Bruges' quaint medieval sights and his role as a tourist. The two killers' disagreeable vaudevillian banter makes the film's early going really watchable, playing like The Odd Couple as written by Quentin Tarantino.
But the longer these misfits stick around, the more complicated things get. Ray turns suicidal, and the duo's boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), calls to give Ken an impossible order. Guns are drawn, tears are dropped and nothing goes the way it's supposed to. Eventually, psychotic Harry (channeling Ben Kingsley's performance in Sexy Beast) shows up to take matters in hand as McDonagh's story backs itself into a heavily plotted corner and only sees a blood-strewn path out.
Though McDonagh's film features plenty of clever dialogue, disturbing violence and offbeat characters, the whole thing would unravel without the incredible performances of its leads.
Farrell is loose and funny here, giving his puppy-dog thug just the right bottom notes of regret. While most of the directors he's worked with have struggled to harness his charisma, McDonagh seems to understand what makes him tick. Ray is impulsive and raging yet hilarious and lovable. He offsets the brutality of his character with a broken-hearted vulnerability that earns your empathy ... even though he's committed the most unforgivable of sins.
Gleeson, on the other hand, provides In Bruges with the closest thing it has to a soul. Capable of coldhearted violence, he gives Ken a weary nobility — even decency — and his scenes opposite Fiennes in the film's final act are both brutally funny and achingly sad.
As with all road movies, it all comes down to chemistry, and, with the exception of Ray's interludes with Jimmy the dwarf (Jordan Prentice), each and every character in In Bruges convincingly connects, selling the story's absurd twists and turns.
Furthermore, McDonagh's savvy enough to take advantage of his surroundings, turning Bruges into yet another character. From its historic buildings and languid canals to the museums showing twisted visions of purgatory (Hieronymus Bosch lives!), the film's underlying message becomes crystal clear: No matter how beautiful the setting, hell is where you make it.
Unfortunately, for all his fanciful ideas, McDonagh doesn't say much. The film's moral seesaw doesn't work because there's no real context to the characters. Everything after the film's first half is symmetrical contrivance and whimsical fabrication. If you surrender to the absurdity of it and aren't tired by the whole hit-man-with-a-soul subgenre, it's a diverting and disturbing romp. If you're looking for something deeper, however, you'll probably walk away troubled by McDonagh's notion of entertainment.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.