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Dustin Putman

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In Bruges  (2008)
3 Stars
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Cast: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Clémence Poésy, Raph Fiennes, Eric Godon, Jordan Prentice, Jérémie Renier, Inez Stinton, Anna Medeley.
2008 – 107 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong bloody violence, pervasive language and some drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 6, 2008.
"In Bruges" is a bravura, genre-twisting gem, a film involving hitmen that, at last, isn't like every other past movie involving hitmen. Shading all of the characters with colors far exceeding black and white and trusting the strength of his filmmaking to carry out his deliberately paced, instantly immersive narrative, writer-director Martin McDonagh more than establishes himself as a gifted new talent to watch. Amazing, too, how McDonagh so effortlessly is able to shift between pitch-black comedy, soul-searching drama, and riveting suspense without missing a beat or losing sight of his grander scheme. This is one picture that packs a wallop.

Following a hit on a priest in London, hired assassins Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent to the picturesque Belgium city of Bruges under the impression that the trip is a way for them to lay low for a while. As gung-ho Ken attempts to take in the sights, Ray sets up a date with bewitching film production assistant Chloe (Clémence Poésy). All the while, he is unable to shake the guilt of having accidentally killed an innocent child in the crosshairs of his very first job. As Ray struggles to come to terms with what he believes is an unforgivable sin, Ken receives a phone call and a demand from their daunting boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes): as means of punishment for murdering the young boy, Ray must be taken out.

The vast majority of today's motion pictures—particularly those made within the big-budget Hollywood system—are derivative, prepackaged attempts to please mainstream audiences who are expected to only want to see the same things they've seen a hundred times before. The joy of a film like "In Bruges" is that it goes against the expected grain and actually tries something different. As the story slowly yet mesmerizingly unfolds, it is impossible to predict what will happen next, and how writer-director Martin McDonagh plans to get there.

The first act is deceptive for a reason, setting up a sense of laid-back calm and camaraderie as Ray and Ken explore the foreign city they have landed in. Sort of a travelogue of Bruges, the opening thirty minutes are visually stunning—the cinematography throughout by Eigil Bryld (2007's "Becoming Jane") takes full advantage of locations that one character accurately describes as "a fairy tale come to life"—as well as ruminative and poetic in its collision of the Old World with the New. When the full details are finally revealed about the circumstances that have brought Ray and Ken to Bruges, that lulling feeling of safety begins to tear apart. And, by the time Ray starts to question how he can go on with his own life while knowing what he has done and Ken is sent on a deadly new mission that he is unsure whether or not he can carry out, all bets are off.

The film's second half, which should be left for each individual viewer to discover, goes to grim places that are at once shatteringly violent and breathlessly, poignantly humane. As tough, uncompromising themes concerning morality and faith wash over the characters' embattled consciences, writer-director Martin McDonagh continues to surprise and enthrall with each new taut development. The irony-rich climax, of which a bell tower, a footchase among the cobblestone streets of Bruges, and a surrealistic, snowswept film set play respective parts, is both thrilling, frightening, and oddly beautiful, calling to mind a Shakespearean tragedy that also happens to have a darkly biting sense of humor.

Performances are top-notch across the board, the actors having a grand time sinking their teeth into roles that are more complex and original than the norm. As the physically and emotionally in-crisis Ray, Colin Farrell (2008's "Cassandra's Dream") is remarkable, as good as he's been in a long time as he explores his in-over-his-head character's unbearable shame and regret. As the more experienced Ken, Brendan Gleeson (2007's "Beowulf") is on-point and empathetic, essaying a man who suddenly finds a chance at nobility in a life that has thus far been anything but. Clémence Poésy (2005's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") adds striking support as Chloe, a love interest for Ray who is treated with enough detail to exceed the part, while Ralph Fiennes (2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") is downright brilliant as the unforgettable Harry, a cold and calculating villain who nonetheless is refreshingly not without a moral compass of his own, however skewed it might be.

When so many films of this ilk portray their characters as cartoonish, one-dimensional pawns—2007's horrid "Hitman" comes instantly to mind—"In Bruges" affords its characters the space to breathe, react and connect like real human beings. Likewise, the plot is unforced and refreshing, evolving naturally out of the extreme but plausible situations writer-director Martin McDonagh has cooked up. It also cannot be stated enough how valuable the atmospheric on-location surroundings in Belgium are; despite Ray's misgivings for ever coming to Bruges, the film could inspire some viewers to reserve plane tickets to this stunning, magical destination. Veritably thoughtful as well as stirring, "In Bruges" is one of the year's first great cinematic releases, a rewarding experience with the style, texture and substance to linger long after the end as arrived.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman