It's been nearly 14 years since Pulp Fiction re-popularized and re-mythologized the hitman for its generation, and through this time, cinema has seen more than its share of men (and sometimes, rarely, women) executing people for money. Anyone who was paying attention to such things can remember the tiring glut of mostly abhorrent, jokey crime dramas that followed in Pulp's wake, so much so that it often seemed that the film's legacy would be the forever tied to these lesser pictures. And, of course, in many ways that's true. To this day, Pulp Fiction represents a change in filmic paradigm, but it paved the way for both its lesser imitators as well as those that exceeded it in quality. Without it, it's hard to imagine No Country for Old Men winning its well-deserved Best Picture Oscar, and it's even harder to imagine the existence of In Bruges, a wonderful film that unearths a surprising amount of truth and humanity from this genre (and should maybe win a statue of its own). With a similar cynical, but humane tone that vacillates from wrenching drama to high comedy, it's a perfect counterpoint to Tarantino's opus: the crime film in thoughtful mid-life crisis compared to Pulp Fiction's adolescent swagger.
In Bruges has a sickly, diseased charm. The experience of watching it is not unlike those times when you lie awake, unable to sleep, contemplating all the harm you've done other people, and feeling oppressed by the associated guilt (the film may lose those who don't experience such moments in their lives, but I contend that they're worse off). In such dark, personal moments, one might be tempted to abandon everything by hopping on the next train out of town or even committing suicide, and this film looks those temptations square in the face and examines them through the good-natured, but confused lens of the following morning. All of its characters harbor life-draining, bottled-up secrets and regrets, but they get through their days with a dose of old-fashioned cynicsm, physical exertion, and mind-altering substances. It focuses on two hitmen who are holing up, on instruction from their boss, in the small Belgian town of Bruges after the younger of the two (Colin Farrell) botched a hit. They're instructed to lie low and wait for instructions. The older hit man (a scream-to-the-rafters good Brendan Gleeson) is delighted to take the opportunity to sight-see, and he drags the indignant Ferrall to a variety of the town's historic destinations. During these excursions, the father-son dynamic between the two men is perfectly played; Ferrall comes off as a pouty, incurious teen, more interested in drinking and hitting up the local women than Gleeson. The older hit man clearly understands where the younger man is coming from, but, feeling his years, is nevertheless interested in matters of a religious and historic nature and wishes to impart his young companion with the important lessons these things provide.
This good-natured, but contentious relationship between the two men is established efficiently by the actors and the script, and, by itself, it's a marvel. They're so good, you could watch Gleeson and Farrell chat and bicker their way while grocery shopping for two hours and never feel less than entertained. But part of the thrill of the movie is in how writer-director Martin McDonagh pushes this relationship to the breaking point. Farrell is torn by guilt, suicidal even, and desperately wants help or advice from Gleeson, but the older man has no answers for him. Gleeson carries his own pain around with him, but years have calloused him to the emotional complexities of his life as a hit man. And while Gleeson tries to convince Ferrall to stay alive while they wait for further instructions, it's suddenly clear that In Bruges is using its hitmen to tackle an exploration of the very meaning of life itself, using their high-stakes, hard-lived lives to ponder the question--to be, or not to be? And while, like Hamlet, In Bruges doesn't come up with a definitive answer that we can all take home and apply to ourselves, it, like Hamlet, shows us how that it's hard, but worthwhile and important to arrive at an answer.
But, lest it seem that the movie is a moody, muddy work of tears and ruminations, it should be noted that In Bruges is a hysterically funny film. McDonagh has written some clever, rancid dialogue for his sleazy characters. From Ferrall's scathing condemnation of American tourists to the racist drivel spewed by a coked-up little person, the film pulls no punches. At times it seems like the movie's about to go off into shock-for-shock's sake offensive humor, but it's much more clever than that. Unlike, say, the worst episodes of South Park, the script holds the characters responsible for the inevitable consequences of their attitudes, and the bigger laughs in the film come from showing the ignorance behind their offensive gibberish. But, even better, is the funniness of the McDonagh's plotting. There's a perfect, dark joke somewhere in the middle that also serves as a plot point, a botched suicide attempt that forces both men to confront a new wrinkle in their relationship and their own respective attitudes toward their lives and their work (I would love to go on about this moment, but I wouldn't dream of giving it away to anyone, not now, not 100 years from now, and, so, I remain coy). It's a moment of absolute genius, as confounding and contradictory (and thereby hilarious) as life itself.
If In Bruges has a flaw, it's only in its immaculate structure. The drama is nice, tidy, and economical, and, while these are all good things, it may be a bit too tidy, too pat. As the film nears its conclusion, it gathers up all of its loose threads and begins to tie them off, weaving all of them into the final beats of the story. It does this marvelously--everything that has happened in the film has some effect on the ending--but the machinery behind the scenes does start to groan and strain a bit to fit everything into the final location and the pacing slows as McDonagh moves all of his pieces to the appropriate positions on the board before kicking-off the finale. It's interesting, though, that the plot of In Bruges is so tidy, while the emotional and philosphical ramifications for its characters are not. With its fractured narrative, spontaneous digressions, but tidy morality, exactly the opposite is true of Pulp Fiction, and this, to me, is a clue as to why I prefer one or the other depending on how I spent the previous night
Would be a good double feature with: Pulp Fiction