In Bruges

In theaters.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s feature film debut is extraordinarily preoccupied with mortality and guilt, the finality of death, the weighing of one evil against another—which is a bit odd because of its genre. In Bruges is, in many ways, an archetypal black-humored crime flick—packed with stylized banter, quirky characters, and self-consciously weird juxtapositions—and that genre lends itself more to wry, amoral detachment than earnest ethical evaluations.

Obviously, it’s not impossible to do the latter. I know many would disagree, but I happen to believe that Quentin Tarantino—surely the godfather of the breed—has produced work with a strong moral center. I mean, the climax of Pulp Fiction is a revelation from God, Jules solemnly declaring that after years enforcing the “tyranny of evil men” he’s going to try to act as a shepherd. But I digress. My point is that McDonagh is attempting a very delicate balancing act with In Bruges, and I’m not sure he totally pulls it off. The dialogue sometimes lumbers when it should be more subtle. The self-conscious weirdness sometimes feels off point and distracting. Yet In Bruges also has flashes of genuine power, scenes in which the artsy allusions to Bosch actually seem to work and the film transcends its genre—if only for a few beautiful moments.

Colin Farrell plays Ray, a slightly dim young hit man who badly bungles his first job for Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a London gang boss. Sent to hide out in Belgium with his mentor Ken (Brendan Gleeson), Ray is miserable among the well-preserved medieval buildings of Bruges and despondent over what he did back home. He manages to distract himself with a mysterious local girl named Chloë (Clémence Poésy), but he can’t help but antagonize his fellow tourists, and the menacing, foul-mouthed Harry is still furious.

As cute as he is, Farrell might be the weak link here. Granted, Ray, as written, isn’t all there. He’s unimaginative, crude, and pathologically short-sighted (though he can charming, too, when he puts in the effort), but Farrell plays him with a mildly slack-jawed dullness that I didn’t find very interesting. Fortunately, Ray isn’t really the principal character. He’s definitely the protagonist, but the real actors (in every sense) are Gleeson’s Ken and Fiennes’ Harry. Ray’s shenanigans with Chloë and an American dwarf (whom Ray insists on calling a midget) are amusing enough (well, kind of—their scenes drag), but the scenes that live up to McDonagh’s obvious ambitions belong to Ken and Harry.

Over the course of the film, the two seasoned criminals and longtime friends find themselves on opposing sides, with Ken wanting to forgive and redeem Ray, and Harry arguing that the young man must be damned and condemned. Somehow, amid all the silliness with dwarf nomenclature and the danger of blanks and the unrecognized irritability of Canadians, that conflict—with its philosophical and religious undertones—has resonance. Gleeson gives Ken a lovely air of forbearance, and Fiennes reveals a core of what was once humanity in the psychotic, trigger-happy Harry. Their final scene together is brutal and riveting, and none of the jokey, Tarantino-lite dialogue that follows at the inn can negate that.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the jokey, Taranatino-lite dialogue—I did, I guess; it was cute—but it felt empty after the clash that preceded it. McDonagh pulls things together at the very end with some truly unsettling imagery, but that wobbly serious-jokey-seriousness lingers, leaving me disappointed. It might not have mattered as much if there weren’t so much at stake, but when the movie has gone out of its way to impress upon you the moral weight of what these people have done, the careless frivolity of the battle negotiations (“On the count of three …”) feels almost disrespectful.

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Trivia fun! Actors Clémence Poésy, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes have been in another movie together. What was it? So glad you asked! It was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in which Poésy plays Beauxbatons champion Fleur Delacour, Gleeson plays Professor “Mad-Eye” Moody, and Fiennes plays Lord Voldemort. For some reason I find this terribly amusing and kind of freaky, though it really only shows that the Harry Potter franchise employs virtually every English-speaking actor in Europe. In any case, thanks, IMDb!