In Bruges (2008): McDonagh’s Feature Debut Starring Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes

Sundance Film Fest (Opening Night–World Premiere)–Part comedy, part crime-gangster, part Christmas redemption story, part fable about the eccentricity of Bruges and its residents, but not satisfying on any of these levels, “In Bruges,” the feature directorial debut of the gifted writer Martin McDonagh is sharply uneven and structurally flawed, an effort to make a personal work out of a familiar genre.

You could describe the serio-comedy as a tale of three characters, and three superlative actors (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes), in search of a plot, as “In Bruges” consists of almost disparate set-pieces, lacking narrative continuity or consistent dramatic energy to make the film truly engaging.

That the saga changes tones every scene, going from serio to comic, and from emotionalism to pathos and sentimentality and back, makes things rougher and tougher for the characters as well as the viewers. Ultimately, “In Bruges” is a movie of some good scenes and witty moments, but one in which the parts do not gel into a coherent whole.

I am not sure how long “In Bruges” has been in the works, but watching the film brings to mind “Borat,” for here is a story situated in Belgium’s bizarre historical town, which is perceived by the hit men as a godforsaken place, a “shit place,” as Colin Farrell repeatedly says, a place that’s worse than death or prison.

World-premiering as the opening-night of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, “In Bruges” should divide critics and audiences when it’s released by Focus Features in late February. Viewers who have liked TV’s “The Sopranos,” and some of the early Coen brothers pictures, may enjoy a comedy about “mobsters with a heart,” criminals who have not lost completely their sense of dignity and decency, hit men who in one scene are going to kill each other, but in the next one are willing to sacrifice their lives for one another.

McDonagh makes a highly anticipated feature directorial debut, based on his own script. Unfortunately, he has constructed his text like a playwright rather than a screenwriter. Indeed, while his monologues and dialogues display original, eccentric voice, they often halt the flow of the narrative, such as it is. “In Bruges” shows evidence that McDonagh likes language and characters (like David Mamet), but, at this phase, is not a natural storyteller or filmmaker.

His plays, including “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “The Pillowman,” have brought McDonagh two Olivier Awards and four Tony Award nominations. He also wrote and directed “Six Shooter,” starring Brendan Gleeson, which earned him the 2006 Oscar Award for Best Live-Action Short Film.

“In Bruges” is framed by voice-over, delivered in a serio-comic way by Ray (Farrell), which describes how on earth he and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) landed in this peculiar town. The first reel is quite good in delineating the irony of two presumably hip mobsters, stranded in a town that’s Belgium’s most well-preserved medieval city. McDonagh makes the most out of the old premises of the “Odd Couple,” and “Fish Out of Water.”

While it’s a welcoming destination for tourists from all over the world, for hit men Ray and Ken it feels like death penalty–their final destination. A tough job that ended tragically with the death of a young boy has motivated merciless London boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to order the pair into exile, sort of to cool their heels in the storybook Flemish city for a couple of weeks.

I am not disclosing any secret here, as mid-way, there is quite an effective flashback that depicts the tragic event, one that has left indelible impact on Ray, who often bursts out crying when recalling the disaster, and is literally and figuratively on the verge of suicide.

The best and most enjoyable aspect of the film is observing the on location shooting, the use of familiar sites, which accentuates the out of place sense of the characters, as they walk around and chase each other amidst the gothic architecture, canals, towers, and cobbled streets. The camera adds to the overall sense of outsidedness and disorientation by shifting from sharp low-angle to extreme high-angle shots.

At first, the two men fill their days living the lives of tourists, one gladly, the other reluctantly. Still haunted by the bloodshed in London, Ray hates the place, while Ken, even as he keeps a fatherly eye on Rays profanely funny and insane exploits, finds his heart, mind and soul expanded by the city’s beauty and serenityand by the generosity of its locals.

It’s not a one-sided influence. Soon, the Odd Couple begin to exert their impact on the town’s residents, tourists-and even violent medieval art. The longer Ray and Ken stay in town waiting for Harry to call with new orders, the more surreal their experience becomes.

Needless to say, most of the duo’s encounters are with eccentrics of one sort or another, showing the influence of the Coen brothers and David Lynch on McDonagh’s sensibility. First, there is a weird encounter with obese tourists, then with a dwarf American actor (Jordan Prentice), who’s shooting a European art film.

Later one, the secondary characters include Dutch prostitutes (who say they can get better price for their “p—y here than in Amsterdam). There’s also a potential romance for Ray with Chlo (Clmence Posy), who is not as simple and honest as she appears to be. With no exception, all the characters harbor dark secrets and ulterior agendas of their own.

When the call from Harry does finally come, Ken and Rays vacation becomes a life-and-death struggle of darkly comic and lethal proportions.

The film gets worse and worse as it goes along. The last reel, which depicts Harry’s arrival on the scene to execute justice (I mean, revenge…), is a combo of redemption and bloodshed which would leave many viewers baffled.

Directed, written by Martin McDonagh
Camera: Eigil Bryld.
Editor: Jon Gregory.
Music: Carter Burwell.
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Art director: Chris Lowe; set decorator, Anna Lynch-Robinson.
Costume designer: Jany Temime.
Sound: Alistair Crocker.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 106 Minutes.