When In Bruges came out in 2008, I was looking forward to seeing it because Bruges is one of the few cities in Europe I’ve been to. I must’ve been around 11 or 12 years old, and I’ve remembered it ever since as being fantastic, right from a fairytale, the perfect setting for a movie. I didn’t make a big effort to see it at the time because I’d assumed it was just another British gangster movie like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch.
I think I was right on both counts, to some degree. In the special features, writer and director Martin McDonagh says that the impetus of the story was his own vacation to the city. He says that part of him was enchanted by the city and enjoyed sightseeing, but eventually he grew to hate it and just wanted to get back to a real city. The two sides of his character are represented by the two main characters. They also, conveniently, represent my own opinion of the movie: part of me was very pleasantly surprised and impressed by the movie’s depth and soul. The rest of me won’t shut up with my various criticisms and irritating nitpicks.
All of the performances were good, especially Colin Farrell, who was excellent. Except for all the whispering in heavy Irish accents, which made subtitles necessary. And more significantly, it didn’t take long to realize that Farrell’s charisma and looks are the only things that make his character tolerable. Since the entire movie hinges on having sympathy for his character, everything falls apart once you spend any time thinking about his character as if he were an actual person.
It’s a story with a very unconventional premise and structure, and you’re intrigued from the opening narration. But then, once you get past the twist at the halfway point, the rest of the premise plays out pretty much exactly as you’d expect it to.
One of the movie’s strongest aspects is the way it humanizes its characters, turning a gangster story into a character study about honor and a meditation on morality, childhood, and lost innocence. But again, once you think about it for a few seconds, it evaporates. It tries to have it both ways with the whole schtick of being offensive on the surface but with a heart of gold on the inside; the movie tries to play the message of we’re-all-in-this-together but ultimately just says it’s okay to make fun of gays and overweight people. And the all-encompassing problem: it’s based on this idea of a warrior code of honor among gangsters, which isn’t just hopelessly over-used at this point; it’s a concept that’s total horseshit.
There’s a wisely deleted scene on the DVD with the current Dr. Who playing Ralph Fiennes’s character in a flashback. It’s interesting because it shows just how close the movie was to being just another millennial gangster movie: it’s inept and affected, as if it were aping Quentin Tarantino without his flair for visuals, or Guy Ritchie without whatever it is that made Guy Ritchie famous. Any aspirations to depth simply disappear; what seemed like a genuine, heartfelt, humanizing message suddenly feels like empty hipster artifice.
Despite my complaints; I did enjoy the movie and I’d still recommend it. I just would encourage everyone in the audience to watch it to its conclusion and refrain from thinking about it at all the moment it ends.
Incidentally, I didn’t link to the Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB page for the movie like I usually do, because each has a minor spoiler right on the front. One of the most clever aspects of the screenplay was how it gradually set up the mystery of why the characters are in Bruges in the first place, then doled out relevant bits of the back-story at exactly the right times. It’s best if you know nothing about the movie other than that it’s about hitmen and a city in Belgium.