In Bruges, the opening night film at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, comes at you sideways; the opening moments and slick snap of the dialogue lull you into believing that you're in for yet another standard-issue post-Tarantino film. Hit man protagonists; punchy, poppy, profane digressions about everything but the matter at hand that lead to punchy, poppy, profane digressions about the matter at hand; characters whose capacity with vocabulary is matched by their capacity for violence. But then, Martin McDonagh's script moves in unexpected directions - and, more importantly, in unexpected directions which are the kind of unexpected that you do not actually expect. In Bruges, with two killers exiled to Belgium after a badly botched London hit until the heat comes off, turns into something different from the standard-issue post-Tarantino film; it becomes the post-post Tarantino film, one where the talk talk bang bang is actually, just as it was in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, about something.
In Bruges, in fact, reminded me of nothing less than an earlier excellent example of the post-post-Tarantino film, Christopher McQuarrie's excellent, underrated and under-seen The Way of the Gun. Both are about a group of tough guys who, through extraordinary variations on their normally extraordinary lives, find out precisely how tough they really are, the hard way. Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) are in Bruges, and all of their quibbling about Bruges's scenic destinations and charm is a way for them to talk constantly without actually talking about what they need to talk about -- which is how off-the-charts wrong one of their jobs has gone. They're not on their familiar London turf; they're in, as Ken relates from the guidebook, "The most well-preserved medieval city in Belgium, apparently." Ken is enjoying the trip; Ray is not. "I hated history, didn't you?" Ray asks. "It's all just a load of stuff that's already happened." As McDonagh's script carefully, firmly lays out why Ken and Ray are in exile amid the cobblestone streets and Gothic cathedrals, Ray's desire to avoid thinking about what's already happened becomes completely understandable.
McDonagh's already made his name as a playwright with acclaimed productions like The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and if you fear that In Bruges will simply be a screen-scaled offering of a stagy, theatrical, claustrophobic play on celluloid, rest assured that McDonagh's working from a similar worry, which he swiftly, surely leaps over through expansive locations, brisk camera work and a strong-but-never-flashy understanding of film's differences from the live stage. There are flashbacks and zooms and stylish shots throughout In Bruges, but they never sag with the conspicuous, hey-ma-look-at-me over-anxiousness of the striving first-time director; rather, In Bruges simply feels as it should. All the zip and pow and zesty vulgarity of the movie can't hide how smart and skillful and thoughtful it is -- and, before your eyes glaze over, rest assured the reverse applies as well.
And with Gleeson and Farrell, McDonagh not gains velocity from our previously-set expectations of them -- bluff heartiness from Gleeson, rugged savoir-faire from Farrell -- but takes them, and thereby us, in unexpected directions. Gleeson's Ken has an unexpectedly thoughtful side -- not simply an offhandedly tossed-in tic, but as a fully-formed part of his character -- and Farrell's Ray has a cracked soul under the glossy façade of his winks and winces. Walking the canals and churches of Bruges, stumbling across film sets and gazing on the work of Hieronymus Bosch, Ken and Ray are far from where they normally are -- which gives them a little space from who they usually are, as well. And, in that extra room, they get to back up a little and truly see who, and what, they are.
But while In Bruges may be a surprisingly moral film, it is not mopey; McDonagh's ear for elliptical, screwball conversation -- hairs are split, semantics argued until points of contention get wielded like knives -- is impressively, explosively funny. Much of this is wildly unquotable, but it nonetheless wrests barks of laughter from the audience as lines and themes and characters and moments from earlier in the film bounce back with crazy corkscrew momentum and go pop like grenades wrapped in silly putty, weird and funny and unexpected and dangerous. And yet, McDonagh never loses sight of the fact that Ray and Ken are ugly men engaged in ugly business; more intriguingly, Ray and Ken never lose sight of it, either. And the galley of supporting characters (a drug dealer with a heart of gold, a London crime boss, a wildly excessive dwarf actor) may be vivid and colorful, but they're never cartoons, either.
McDonagh's not doing anything new with In Bruges (long before Marcellus Wallace sent two killers for Brett, Macbeth sent two killers for Duncan), but he does it with such flair and wit -- and with so much more than just flair and wit -- that you sincerely find yourself caught up in Ray and Ken's plight. It's not because they are inhuman killers and bad men, but because they are bad killers and human men, haunted and hounded and puzzled by the bad things they've done and the things they've done badly. In Bruges is loaded with gun play and showdowns, but McDonagh -- like Tarantino, and unlike all the incompetent imitators who trudged in the blood-soaked footsteps he left in his wake -- knows full well that what makes crime fiction interesting is a gun being pointed between two characters, but what makes crime fiction fascinating is a writer who knows the potentially dangerous flesh-and-blood characters on both ends of the weapon matter far more than the potentially dangerous metal object between them. In Bruges is funny and flashy, but as it ends you know you've been laughing because it truly hurts, and every flare and flash of the talking and the killing have left something much more subtle burned into your brain.