Friday, March 14, 2008
Modest Treasures: In Bruges
Quiet, unassuming and surprisingly unforgettable. That might be the way you’d describe the modest town of Bruges, Belgium, which makes for the setting of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s debut film In Bruges. Then again, those are words you could also use for Brendan Gleeson’s performance in the movie. Casual cinema fans might remember Gleeson – a “that guy” if there ever was one – as Hamish to Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart. He was the stoic Monk in Gangs Of New York. And he’s popped in and out of recent Harry Potter flicks as MadEye Moody. Here, Gleeson hits the screen in what is set up as another supporting role, this time alongside Collin Farrell. Before the end, Ralph Fiennes joins the fray, too. But Gleeson is the MVP. In a picture that wobbles in a sea of tonal contradictions, he is the axis. Steady and true.
Gleeson and Farrell play Ken and Ray, a pair of hitmen coming off a botched job who are sent to the sleepy medieval town of Bruges to hide out and await instruction. For Ray this is something of a death sentence. He mopes and whines, and Farrell spends much of the movie fidgeting around in the role like a kid in ill-fitting clothes. Gone is any hint of his broad-shouldered and swaggery Sonny Crockett, but on the whole Farrell’s portrayal is like Mike Tyson’s life: as notable for its embarrassing disasters as for its thunderous knockout punches. Gleeson, on the other hand, is flawless. He hardly fits our mental image of a hitman and so he wastes no time pretending otherwise. Gleeson’s Ken gleefully meanders through Bruges taking in the tourist attractions like an excited social studies teacher, or like a dad on vacation – so relieved to be away from the office that he pretends to ignore the crybaby tag-along grumbling next to him.
Would Ken really kill someone? He might not come off like a killer, but Ken says that he is one and that’s good enough. Gleeson infuses his character with such sincerity that we don’t even begin to question his word. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Ken is a particularly happy hitman. Ray is the haunted one of the two, desperate to occupy his time so that he might escape his nightmarish depression. He’s the one running from what he’s done. But, in a less obvious way, Ken is silently coping with an even larger issue: what he is. For him, Bruges isn’t just a break from the norm, it’s a peek at a life that might have been, if only …
In that sense, the quaint town of Bruges is more than just a punchline for Ray’s bitter grumbling. Every movie “takes place” somewhere, but few films truly inhabit their settings. Working with cinematographer Eigil Bryld and editor Jon Gregory, McDonagh allows his film to move along like Ken’s experienced sightseer. His camera and his screenplay soak in each precious moment with the knowledge that it can’t last, yet they never overstay their welcome, determined to turn over as many stones as possible within the allotted time. Next to these visuals and plot developments, Carter Burwell’s original score sets the mood, beginning fancifully, piano-only, before applying a more menacing tone with the addition of strings.
The modest orchestral score and the earnest appreciation of setting are two of the key reasons In Bruges feels so original while working within a genre that has been pummeled into critical condition by cheap knock-off artists desperate to capture the retro hipster flair of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. McDonagh’s screenplay is rife with black comedy, arbitrary ruminations on life, midget/dwarf jokes, drug use, f-bombs, c-bombs and graphic violence. The use of these elements and the frequent juxtaposition of tonal opposites puts In Bruges in the crosshairs of Q.T.’s ilk. But one significant alteration sets it entirely apart: Whereas Tarantino’s pictures are overflowing with coolness (in his movies, even the uncool are cool, as evidenced by Tarantino’s cameo in Pulp Fiction), Gleeson’s Ken is anti-cool. Ken is, for lack of a better word, normal.
But Gleeson’s performance is extraordinary. In Bruges is released too early in the year and will remain too obscure for it to realistically contend for any year-end awards, but it’s the best film of 2008 thus far (not that the competition is stiff at this point). And my bet is that Gleeson’s performance will rival, if not surpass, the Academy’s five nominees for Best Supporting Actor come February 2009. To watch a performance like this is to wonder why so many “character actors” are so regularly forced into such small roles. Ken hardly gets the screen time of Daniel Plainview, but at least he provides Gleeson with enough time to take off his shoes and get comfortable in the part. Here Gleeson plays contentment, delight, exasperation and determination. Most impressively though, he creates a character who is honorable without morphing into righteousness.
McDonagh’s debut feature film has a few awkward moments. Some jokes fall flat, others never quite mature. And plot twists in the third act become a bit heavy-handed. Still, there’s plenty within In Bruges to leave you excited about McDonagh’s potential as a filmmaker. In addition to Gleeson, who is really in a secondary leading role, McDonagh produces captivating supporting performances from Jordan Prentice (Jimmy) and Clemence Poesy (Chloe), not to mention Fiennes, who as Harry seems to be wearing either bigger teeth or a shorter upper lip than when last we saw him. In any case, what stands out about all of the film’s characters is that they seem to be real people with real lives who happen to collide in sometimes beautiful and sometimes bloody fashion in this charming little town called Bruges – a place so genuine that it feels like a fantasy. In Bruges is a film set in a place we otherwise might never encounter that’s made fantastic by an actor we’ve all too often overlooked.