watching Martin McDonagh's debut film 'in bruges' last night reminded me of johny gaddar, the best noir film to have emerged from bollywood. in both films we are presented with bad men who we end up rooting for, who we wish are alive & escape the consequences of their actions at the film's close. but it is here that the similarity ends. while in the hindi film the lead character is responsible for the ensuing tragedy & is given choices that could have averted the disaster, the tragedy in 'In Bruges' arises not so much out of the characters' actions as out of the circumstances they are thrown in the midst of. i think mention should be made here of that other superb film i saw this year, 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' which is also similar to johny gaddar & equally tragic. returning to 'in bruges', McDonagh brilliantly makes use of the medieval belgian town from which the film derives its title. also noteworthy is carter burwell's slow piano score.
Ken & Ray (brendan gleeson & colin farell) are guns for hire who are ordered to lie low in the quaint flemish town & enjoy the sights after a shooting goes awry & Ray ends up accidentally killing a small boy. the incident has changed both men more than they care to admit & the consequences of which we witness as the film unfolds. dogged by guilt & yet striving hard to function as if nothing has changed, both men react in different ways to the beauty of the canals, the gothic architecture & the dark paintings of heironymous bosch. while the artistically inclined, gentler & subtler Ken endlessly peruses guide books & exclaims enthusiastically, "this is the best preserved medieval town in belgium', the younger, restless & guilt wracked Ray rants, hurls profanities & insults, & in general behaves like one of the loud insensitive americans he so despises. his never ending twitches & relentless complaints about the 'shithole' they have been thrown in doesn't hide the fact that here is a man who talks & eats & walks simply to avoid facing the silence that is always nearby to engulf his soul. how can he find peace when everything he sees or does reminds him of the child whose life he snuffed out. respite comes in the form of the pretty chloe (Clémence Poésy), but here too complications abound in the form of a possessive ex-bf who nurses a grouse against Ray who blinds him during a scuffle.
what is brilliant about this film is the clever way the director uses bruges to exile his characters & develop them. both men are far removed from the life they usually lead & the things they would ordinarily do & this gives them an odd freedom; one which they aren't even aware of. cribbing about the single room they have to share, the endless wait for their mentor harry's (ralph fiennes) call, they don't know that they are changing in ways unbeknownst to them, that they will behave in a manner that contradicts the basic tenets of self interest, the only code a contract killer abides by. it is in bruges that they have the luxury to step back & reexamine what they are & what they have made of their lives, and if it is possible to be something else.
there is a lot of absurd humor in this film, the kind that cannot be easily labeled 'dark'. Ray's obsession with midgets & eventual friendship with one plays out in a climax that is oddly touching, a deserving untangling of the different skeins the film throws out. while we are quite accustomed to films like babel, 21 grams & eternal sunshine where disparate narrative threads & people are shown to be connected in unusual & tenuous ways, the action here is less random. it is only fitting that the same people cross each others paths in the central square of a small town; not much happenstance there.
eugene of neil, that great carrier of irish guilt which he communicated so achingly through his plays once said, "Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue". here too the broken ready themselves for His grace by their final acts of righteousness & justice, no matter how damaged they are or how far they have strayed.