In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents In Bruges.

criterion logoIrish hit men Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) have been ordered to cool their heels in the storybook city of Bruges (it’s in Belgium) after a big job goes wrong.  While veteran killer Ken is happy to spend his days sightseeing and his nights waiting for instructions from their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), newbie trigger-man Ray quickly grows anxious amid the canals and cobblestones of Belgium’s best-preserved medieval town and finds himself caught in the middle of surreal exchanges between hostile tourists, a beautiful drug-dealer, a skinhead robber, and a heavily drugged little person actor.  And when yet another of Harry’s assignments fails to proceed according to plan, the angry crime boss makes his way to Bruges to sort out Ray and Ken’s mess.  Playwright Martin McDonagh’s first feature is an equally poignant, hilarious, and hard-bitten tale of penance and redemption that has grown into a contemporary cult classic.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 4K digital film transfer, approved by writer and director Martin McDonagh, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary with McDonagh and actor Colin Farrell
  • Deleted and extended scenes, with optional audio commentary by McDonagh
  • Six Shooter, McDonagh’s Oscar-winning 2004 short film
  • Within Bruges, a new interview and video piece with McDonagh on the film’s influences and references
  • When in Bruges, cast and crew interviews on the making of In Bruges
  • Strange Bruges, interviews with the cast on the film’s historic location
  • F*****g Bruges, a collection of the film’s vulgar exclamations and reactions
  • A Boat Trip Around Bruges, a tranquil point-of-view tour through the canals of Bruges
  • Gag reel
  • Trailer
  • Stills Gallery
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by cult film scholar Ernest Mathijs

Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is a fish-out-of-water comedy about a pair of Irish hit men obliged to hide out in Bruges, Belgium, until further directions are received by their London-based crime boss.  Ken (Brendan Gleeson) tries to make the best of the excursion, sightseeing around Belgium’s best-preserved medieval city and taking in the canals, churches, and art galleries.  Ray (Colin Farrell) will have none of Bruges’s sleepy stonework (“Bruges is a shithole.”) and instead spends his time childishly sulking until he is granted a pint of “normal beer” (read: a lager, as opposed to the local “gay” ale that Ken drinks from an elegant, fluted glass).  Ray’s sullen, anxious demeanour is not simply an effect of his locale.  The pair are hiding in Bruges because Ray’s hit on a Catholic priest (and his first job, no less) resulted in his accidentally killing a young boy.  Despite Ray’s blustering resistance, he is actually wracked by guilt and Bruges during Christmastime, full of churches, vacationing families, youth choirs, and pregnant hotel owners, offers little refuge to the young man.  Oddly, he finds relief in a film production occurring in the city, where he meets a drug-using, American little person actor, Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), and a drug-dealing, Belgian beauty, Chloe (Clémence Poésy).  They might have made Bruges bearable for Ray, but his dinner date with Chloe ends with his assaulting a pair rude Americans (actually Canadians), partially blinding Chloe’s skinhead partner in a failed robbery, and observing Jimmy’s racist attitudes thanks to a heavy dose of alcohol and ketamine.  Instead, Ray commits himself to suicide, unable to assuage his guilt and continually tortured by his stay in Bruges.

Ken, for his part, is contacted by his boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who states that the trip to Bruges was intended as a final gift to Ray before Ken murders him.  Harry likes the young Irishman, but his moral code is firm and, as he confirms to Ken, “You can’t kill a kid and expect to get away with it.”  Ken, who still admires Harry and feels indebted to him, proceeds with carrying out his instructions, until he observes Ray attempting to kill himself in a children’s park.  Ken intervenes, takes Ray’s gun from him, and puts him on a train out of Bruges in hopes that he can redeem himself from his past mistakes and move on as a better man.  Ken then phones Harry to advise him of the same, causing a manic, blood-thirsty crime boss to immediately travel to Bruges to sort out Ken.  Circumstances also return Ray to Bruges and all of the film’s characters converge as their conflicting moral standards for forgiveness and punishment lead to a poignantly bloody dénouement.  For those who haven’t seen In Bruges, we’ll leave our discussion of the film’s concluding act and its uncertain ending there, being unwilling to spoil the film’s final redemptions and ironies here.

With its emphasis on violent men and vulgar banter, McDonagh’s In Bruges often inspires comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s films and McDonagh openly acknowledges a debt to the American director, however critics putting forward such a kinship often do so apologetically, as such descriptions have a tendency to lump McDonagh in with the multitude of other Tarantino-emulators who trade in homosocial aggression and pop culture literacy without deeper reflection.  Often lost in the Tarantinoesque is the emotional sincerity that roots his films and his characters, whether it be loyalty, lust, anger, or love.  If anything, McDonagh’s characters are more complexly wounded and more psychically conflicted than anyone in Quentin’s movies, and none more so Colin Farrell’s Ray.  While the performances in In Bruges are wonderful across the board, Farrell is superb, playing an immature man beset by feelings of guilt and sadness that extend beyond his tragic killing of a boy and into the difficulty of living in a world that refuses to conform with his black-and-white rules of engagement.  Farrell’s hound dog eyebrows, his nervous restlessness, and his childish impatience betray him and, in doing so, reveal him as ill-equipped to handle the true consequences of the violent life he has just embarked upon.  McDonagh proves himself to be a master of balancing the film’s tone between comedy and tragedy, between physical and spiritual, between poetry and violence.  Like Tarantino, McDonagh does not so much move the film between these sensibilities, but allows these values to comfortably coexist throughout.  In Bruges somehow manages to always be hilarious, always be poignant, always be sincere, always be arresting.  McDonagh constructs a tone as individual as Bruges itself.

While McDonagh may trade in violent content like Tarantino, his treatment of it is remarkably different.  In Bruges lacks the posturing machismo and the resolving brutality of Tarantino’s films.  Instead, McDonagh presents an anti-violence treatise where the rules and rationales of violent engagement are consistently revealed as specious in the face of life’s dynamism.  It starts with Ray’s accidental killing of the boy and continues on.  Ray confirms that a bottle in the hands of any individual justifies self-defence (“In my book, though, someone comes at you with a bottle, I’m sorry, that is a deadly weapon, he’s gotta take the consequences.”), but after Ray later taunts an American couple and punches out the bottle-weilding woman, he discovers himself offside when they turn out to be Canadians and unsuitable targets for his accusations.  Jimmy, high as a kite, pontificates on the oncoming race war, only to be questioned by Ken about which side he belongs to given the tragic death of his black wife by a white man and left equivocating that Ken should “weigh his options.”  Harry’s inflexible code about killing a child ultimately becomes his own ironic undoing by the film’s end – a final of many condemning statements on the inevitably unintentional consequences and collateral damages that follow such self-assured violence, a position made all the weightier given the film’s Irish writer-director and stars.

Bruges is a gorgeous and unexpected setting.  McDonagh describes the genesis of his film as arising from his own conflicted experience in the city, feeling both moved by its beauty and bored by its quaintness, and set upon dividing those attitudes between a pair of fish-out-of-water hit men.  Yet, Bruges fascinates as a setting for this story, proving to be the perfect locale for Ray’s Carruthian trauma.  Harry reveals the trip to Bruges as a final, unappreciated kindness to the condemned Ray (“How can fucking swans not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing?”), however Bruges is Hell to the young man, or, more accurately, Purgatory.  Trauma victims find themselves in the dissociated position of perceiving themselves out of time and space, trapped in their traumatic experience, and Bruges, with its Gothic architecture and medieval Catholicism, ensures that Ray is constantly reminded of the church where he killed the boy and his soul-crushing guilt took hold.  The Christmas season ensures that happy families and children’s choirs are never out of view (“There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened.”).  Even the hotel owner is pregnant.  Bruges constantly confronts Ray with his traumatic past and, like Ken, demands that he involve himself in his own redemption.  Appropriately, the film being shot in Bruges appears to resemble Bosch’s The Last Judgment, which Ken and Ray observe earlier in the film with Ray’s approval, and literally transforms the city into a Purgatorial space where Ray will at last be judged for his crimes.  Ray is punished, although McDonagh offers a final hint that Ray may not all be lost.

Since its release, In Bruges has developed a strong cult following.  In his BFI volume, 100 Cult Films, author Ernest Mathijs notes how McDonagh’s film decidedly won a popular survey organized by him for the next cult classic.  Various different reasons are cited, including its eminent quotability.  (Tied for our favourites are: “Ken, I’m from Dublin.  I love Dublin.  If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.”  “I do know a Belgium joke.  What’s Belgium famous for?  Chocolates and child abuse, and they only invented the chocolates to get the kids.”)  Also cited is the film’s wealth of intertextual and transtextual content, encouraging repeat viewings to fully identify and unpack this material.  We’ve already noted the interconnections between the art of Hieronymus Bosch, as well as Gerard David.  Cinematically, In Bruges identifies with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Back (1973), about a husband and wife who find themselves haunted by the recent death of their daughter while staying in Venice, Italy, and signals a change in tone with a reference to Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958).  McDonagh has spoken about the idea of Bruges being a character unto itself, much as Roeg does with Venice, and the film acknowledges its debt when Chloe describes the film-in-a-film production (“It’s a pastiche of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.  Not a pastiche but a … ‘homage’ is too strong … a ‘nod of the head.'”)  Theatrically, In Bruges most closely connects to Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, a one-act, Godot-like play wherein a pair of hit men wait in a basement until one of the two assassins is directed to kill the other.  McDonagh even has Ray and Ken check into their Bruges hotel under the names of Pinter’s characters.  Musically, In Bruges is notable for its use of The Dubliners’ recording of “On Raglan Road,” an adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s 1946 poemwhich reverses the Aisling theme of the poem, transforming Ken into the fallen angel figure and offering Ray an opportunity for redemption, and bringing the film’s Irish roots and its considerations of violence and its consequences to the fore.  These and still other references locate In Bruges within a web of meaning that offers the film a wealth of significances and a depth of intertextual connections that extends beyond the usually shallow pop cultural content normally associated with such practices.

Gay Beer Normal BeerIn Bruges is on disc for home viewing in a reasonably respectable edition, although that’s never stopped Criterion from stepping up and making further improvements thereupon.  With the film’s solid reputation, a strong list of awards, and its quietly growing cult following, McDonagh’s film would fit comfortably in the Collection, bringing humour, pathos, and Colin Farrell’s thick, expressive eyebrows to its modest, post-millenial titles.  Current promotional materials for In Bruges are disappointing, making the film look like yet another banter-filled exercise in new violence, and fan art, while still an improvement, somehow fail to capture the film’s essential core.  We’ll promote a rather simple cover design – a close-up shot of Ray and Ken’s contrasting glasses of beer (one “gay” ale, one “normal” lager) set upon a wood tabletop.  You might choose to add a pistol, a Bruges tour guide, or the dead boy’s note that Ray keeps in his jacket, but the two glasses, representing the film’s two main characters and their differing relationships to their unusual locale, is as effective a representation of In Bruges as we can imagine.

Credits:  Most of the included special features are holdovers from the current disc release of In Bruges, although we’ve added the McDonagh commentaries, his Oscar-winning 2004 short film Six Shooter, and our imagined interview/video piece Within Bruges to talk about the film’s intertextual and transtextual content.  We recommend Bent Sørensen’s “In Bruges and The Dumb Waiter as studies in Interdependence and Sacrifice/Liberation” for its its consideration of the film’s intertexts, most notably for its analysis of “On Raglan Road.”  Ernest Mathijs was selected for his knowledge of cult cinema, his 100 Cult Films book for the BFI, and his specific relationship to In Bruges by way of his cult film survey.

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