In Bruges, writer-director Martin McDonagh's new film about the misadventures of two hitmen who botch an assignment and end up hiding out in "the most well-preserved medieval town in the whole of Belgium, apparently," is a Tuesday crossword puzzle of a movie anyone with a beginner's knowledge of the worst Tarantino-esque indie crime affectations (strained pop-cultural verbal riffs studded with casually racist and homophobic asides, show-off violence, firearm fetishism) can solve with relative ease long before the closing credits roll.
McDonagh's film starts as a buddy comedy with a promising running joke: Young, spastic hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) can't stand the place, while Ken (Brendan Gleeson) can't get enough of its canals, architecture, and sleepy charm. The quiet opening scenes slyly document the two kinds of tourists. Ken wants to follow instructions, stay in the hotel at night, and marvel at the buildings and the atmosphere during the day. Ray, on the other hand, wants to mix and mingle with its inhabitants and explore the city at night.
As Ray, Farrell harnesses some cranked-up energy for his longer monologues, but when he's asked to zigzag at top speed from comic bluster to shuddering guilt, his character spins out of control. As Ken, Gleeson, a big easy-chair of a guy with a leftover hippie hairdo, is much more agreeable in a less flashy part. He's also responsible for a curiously pleasurable actor's moment when he fussily and distractedly turns the page of a guide book while Farrell begs him to go down to the pub. The weary, absent-minded dismissiveness of his gesture hints at years of prickly coexistence. That this mellowed-out Foghorn Leghorn hasn't been shouldering this runty chicken hawk for years is one of the film's only surprises.
McDonagh's single notable skill as a filmmaker is his ability to build tension from everyday conflicts, and In Bruges' most lively moments occur when conversational generalizations or half-heard mutterings erupt into clumsy physical and ethical skirmishes. Restaurant gripes prompt broken-bottle brawls; coked-out racial theorizing becomes ground for a pinned-eye gut check. Nothing here matches the menace of Anton Chigurgh's coin tossing in No Country For Old Men, but the way the bottom drops out of certain scenes is refreshing.
However, these unexpected, anything-goes tiffs are drowned out by the whining, grinding noises of the plot as it lurches into focus. In this overly schematized, cleverly mapped film, functionality always wears the mask of eccentricity, so the most esoteric or whimsical details about personal honor codes, sullen dwarf actors, and head-exploding bullets whang around like boomerangs that try to knock the viewer unconscious.
After some twists and turns best left undescribed, it takes not one but two preposterous co-inky-dinks to bring Ray back to Bruges and arm him for a final shootout against his boss, Harry Masters (played by Ralph Fiennes as a heat-seeking missile of a man). By this point, In Bruges is no longer pretending to be anything but an adolescent male fantasy, albeit one with an unusually high number of romantic tête-à-têtes at open-air cafes.
Opening Friday, February 22nd
Studio on the Square