Laughing Abstract: Farrell and Gleeson Get Dark in Inky Black Comedy

Maui Time | February 2, 2008
Laughing Abstract

Farrell and Gleeson Get Dark in Inky Black Comedy

In Bruges (Three Stars) (681 words)

By Cole Smithey

“In Bruges” (pronounced ‘brooj’) is a highly unique and stylized black comedy that makes good on its ostensibly simple hitmen/boss narrative trope. Colin Farrell has visible fun as Ray, a newbie assignment killer sent to Bruges, Belgium with his more experienced Irish compatriot Ken (Brenden Gleeson), to hide out after a London kill that went astray. A Laurel and Hardy friendship develops between the two men as they sightsee Belgium’s best preserved medieval city while awaiting instructions from their excitable and profane boss Harry (exceptionally played by Ralph Fiennes). The film shifts into a postmodern existential satire even as the body count goes up in a surprise-filled climax. Here is an unapologetically irreverent European crime thriller that makes subtle character development as effortless as Colin Ferrell’s upward bent eyebrows.

“You’ve got to stick to your principles” is the theme that Ray, Ken and Harry wrestle with individually as their similar-but-different purposes are revealed for coming to the picturesque town with its romantic canals, bridges, and cobblestone streets. Harry visited Bruges with his parents as a boy and looks back nostalgically on the ancient city as a magical kind of fantasy land. There’s a streak of poetry in Harry’s psychology that allows him to send his bumbling killers to hide out in a place he genuinely loves. We can interpret Harry’s subconscious longing for an excuse to revisit Bruges. The foreshadowing is icily transparent and allows for a loaded periodical climax of noir, comic, and dramatic elements that dip into Grand Guignol visuals.

For their part Ray and Ken are two fish out of water and as such attract odd pals that include drug dealers, prostitutes, and a racist American dwarf film actor Jimmy (Jordan Prentice). There’s some borrowing from last year’s black comedy hit “Death at a Funeral” in transferring a dwarf character to carry significant plot points, but when Jimmy goes off on a cocaine rant about an imminent race war, the character metaphorically sticks out his tongue and bites it off.

Ray repeatedly complains that Bruges is a “shithole” while happy-go-lucky Ken clearly enjoys the place’s innate charm. But Ray’s generally put-off demeanor conceals a terrible heartbreak over a lethal mistake he made back in London. Ray’s spirits rise when he meets a local hottie named Chloe (Clemence Poesy), a criminal in her own right, with a boyfriend (Jeremie Renier) who loads his gun with blanks.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh (“Six Shooter”) follows the form of classic ‘60s era European cinema in giving the first act a leisurely pace in which nothing much seems to happen but layers of behavior are adding up. There’s no mistaking the township of the title as an enormous secondary character stealing for menace. The film’s gradually escalating tonal steps from innocence to violence begin with an unintended verbal insult from Ray toward a family of fat Americans that want to climb the narrow stairs of a bell tower. The weight-challenged patriarch ineffectually chases Ray around the Town Square in a desperate attempt at pummeling the cheeky Irishman. Ray’s anti-American disposition gets more unflattering light when he punches out an offended couple in a restaurant. However, the edgy humor has a ring of realism that extends the language of the text. The delivery is more side-text than subtext, and you can sense more than a little influence from the David Mamet school of dramaturgy. Everything is understated, and everything is overstated at the same time.

“In Bruges” is a movie that makes you thirsty for the golden Belgian beer that its characters savor at every opportunity. It made me want to travel to Bruges to spend a few days drinking, but the film’s rapid submersion into the inky waters of pitch black comedy was its real reward. Black comedy is a rich genre when done well because it forces the audience to look at humor, culture, and death under an abstract microscope. I just love a good abstract laugh.

Rated R. 101 mins. (B)


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