In Bruges, Martin McDonagh’s directorial debut is getting a limited edition Blu Ray release via Second Sight, and it’s a sweary treat. In many ways this is a very personal film for McDonagh. It’s based on a trip he made to Bruges, where half of him found the culture and architecture fascinating, while the other half was bored out of his mind. This is essentially the basis for the two leads in his film, playing the two sides of McDonagh’s brain. The older, more experienced Ken (Brendan Gleeson) loves the city’s old buildings and culture, while the younger, more impulsive Ray (Colin Farrell) hates Bruges instantly and strops about the place like a child. As the two get more and more fed up with each other, and Bruges itself, the reason for their visit becomes grimly apparent.
The film mainly plays out as McDonagh’s own unique take on Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. But while Pinter’s play is confined to one room, McDonagh allows his protagonists the broader, but no less chafing prison of Bruges. The setting is at once incidental and very specific. It could be any old unknown European city, but McDonagh’s personal insight from his stay means that parts of the film play out as a kind of quirky travelogue, which allows for some beautiful cinematography, and this new Blu Ray release really emphasises the picturesque settings.
Gleeson and Farrell have a tangible chemistry together, and it’s a joy to watch the two bicker and squabble in various scenic locations. Gleeson perfectly captures the glee of taking in the city. He plays the quintessential Brendan Gleeson role, the kindly older hitman who thinks of himself as a good person despite the fact he has killed people for money.
The real revelation is Colin Farrell, who gives an uncharacteristically down to earth and incredibly funny turn as the childlike hitman. He portrays Ray as crude and bratty, and there’s a lack of vanity he brings to the role that makes him incredibly likeable. The combination of petulance and innocence brings a real poignancy to his character, and the result is Farrell’s most effective film performance.
Then of course you have Ralph Fiennes who almost steals the film as the psychotic crime boss. It would be easy to dismiss Fiennes’ performance as a rip off of Ben Kingsley’s iconic turn in Sexy Beast, but on a rewatch it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Kingsley is an unhinged psychopath who attacks anyone who looks at him the wrong way, evil personified. Fiennes’ character isn’t evil. He’s a coiled up spring ready to lash out at anyone, but he still has a warped sense of honour. He’s all righteous anger, and wounded pride, and he pitches it just right. As a result he winds up more sympathetic but no less terrifying than Kingsley. There’s no malice between Fiennes and the two protagonists, they have just been cast in the roles they are playing, and he’s just playing his part.
The script itself is full of little touches that makes all the characters relatable and likeable, even Fiennes. The crude aphorisms, creative insults and politically incorrect jokes that pepper the film bely the actually quite sweet nature of the characters. Farrell’s final lines are really touching and innocent, showing him for the frightened innocent he really is, and is completely in keeping with the film’s preoccupation with morality and redemption. The only bit that still doesn’t work for me is the line “this is the shoot out” which is just too self aware. Ironically McDonagh’s brother’s film The Guard has a similar line at the end, which is similarly jarring. It’s a minor blip in script that’s otherwise word perfect.
While he’s gone on to larger scale films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, In Bruges remains the best distillation of McDonagh’s style committed to film. It’s foul-mouthed, bitingly cruel, and often genuinely poignant, with some of the best swearing dialogue in anything outside of The Thick Of It. A combination of witty, crude dialogue and a meditation on morality and redemption
Apart from the very cool new packaging, the special features are largely the same as what you already get on the standard DVD release. There are some new features on Bruges itself, and a 50 page booklet on the film, but the main selling point is the inclusion of McDonagh’s Oscar Winning short Six Shooter, starring Brendan Gleeson in a very similar part to Ken. It’s a great example of McDonagh’s dark sense of humour , and a fitting companion piece to In Bruges.