In Bruges (2008)

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*. In 2011 BFI published a book of 100 Cult Films, compiled by Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik. In the process of making their selections (many of which I strongly disagreed with) the authors ran an online poll allowing people to vote for their own choice as “the film most likely to become the newest, latest cult film.” There weren’t many votes, but the winner was In Bruges, leading the authors to conclude that “like it or not, the film has earned its place among canonical cults.”
*. Only five years later I wonder if anyone would select this film as potential cult material. Of course the whole question of the status of cult films today is a tricky one, and I’m inclined to think we don’t have cult movies any more, but even leaving that small matter aside I think fitting this one into the canon is a stretch.
*. Sure, it’s OK. But what makes it different other than its conspicuous desire to be different? Which isn’t really all that different, when you think about it.
*. What we have is a decent cast in a European neo-noir, this time with some especially pretty scenery. The leads are hip, likeable “bad guys,” there are some funny lines (but fewer than I expected), and a surprisingly simple and straightforward plot that is worked out slowly and deliberately. The action scenes are suitably ironic (“This is the shootout”), but unrealistic and carefully staged.

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*. It does have an interesting ancestry. Writer-director Martin McDonagh came to film from a theatrical background and if you think Ken and Ray are holed up in Bruges anticipating the arrival of Godot, as filtered through Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter with its two hit men waiting to receive their next assignment (“We’ve got to stay here until he rings”), then you’re not far off the mark. Such an informing spirit also explains the absurdist, argumentative dialogue, as we get in the bantering over Bruges’ status as a “fairytale” place, or Yuri’s quibbling over the word “alcove.” This is something markedly different than Tarantino’s droll and obscene back-and-forth.
*. McDonagh’s first film, a short titled The Shooter (also starring Brendon Gleeson), won an Academy Award. The only other movie I’ve seen by him is Seven Psychopaths, which I thought was trash. I think he may be overrated.
*. Apparently some of the best lines from the film are now graffitied near the bell tower in Bruges. The most common is this brilliant one: “Bruges is a shithole.” Hey, that’s worth writing down! I wonder if they wanted to do “It’s an inanimate object!” “You’re an inanimate object!” That was clever too. (I’m being sarcastic.)

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*. I’m honestly a little slack-jawed at the critical response to the script. Roger Ebert: “a plot that cannot be foreseen but only relished.” John Anderson in the Washington Post: “a hit-man movie in which you don’t know what will happen and can’t wait to find out.” Actually, I was pretty darn sure I knew what was going to happen all throughout the film, and since there was little suspense I didn’t feel an urgent need to find out.
*. I mean, you knew the only point of introducing the character of Eirik was to bring him back later, right? (Though Mcdonagh seems not to have found much of a role for him to play, leaving him almost entirely extraneous to the plot.) You knew Ray was coming back to Bruges after Ken put him on the train, right? You knew he was going to find the gun in the drawer as soon as you saw Ken put it in there, right?
*. While on the subject of being obvious, did they really need to introduce the long take of Ken on the phone to Harry with a clip from Touch of Evil playing on TV? It’s not like the telephone conversation was that complicated a shot.
*. The whole final act is terrible. Ken and Ray take forever to die. At least I’m assuming Ray dies, after being shot four or five times. And Ken even survives a fall from the bell tower!
*. I know Bruges is a pretty European town, but can you really run around all night brandishing a pistol and shooting at people and not even see a cop? And how likely is it that a top gangster like Harry would do that? Even if he hadn’t killed himself at the end, how could he have gotten away?
*. The killing of the dwarf Jimmy is far too pat, not to mention improbable. I also missed how he got his head blown off. Did Harry actually miss Ray with one of his shots, or did a bullet go through him?
*. Though perhaps the ending is all meant to be a cocaine-fueled dream or trip to hell, with the actors on the film set dressed up to look like Bosch’s devils. That Ray is imagining things would also help explain why he sees all the characters from the rest of the movie re-appearing as he’s taken to the ambulance. Why else would Eirik be there? And Marie the hotel owner?

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*. The characters don’t have the weight that I think McDonagh wants them to have. Ray is tortured, but remains a kid, oddly oblivious to the consequences of everything he says or does. I also got tired of Farrell working his puppy-dog eyes so much. Harry Waters is a cipher. Is Ken gay? Ray calls him gay (he orders “a gay beer for his gay friend”) and this was the impression I had. I thought his mentioning a wife was just bullshit to throw smoke at Jimmy, rhyming with Chloe’s attempt to make Ray feel bad by saying her friend was the victim of a serial killer.
*. So what’s it all about? Redemption through sticking to one’s principles? Well, that gangster code doesn’t work out in the end, leading not just to the death of all the gangsters but Jimmy too. I don’t see anything very philosophical or spiritual about that.
*. More to the point, do we buy that such people would stick to their code in these circumstances? Harry tells Ken that everyone is suicidal, which I guess they are, though if you take a step back from it that seems a silly premise.
*. In short, it strikes me as an overwritten and awkward film: a thinking (or cultured) man’s take on Tarantino. I find it interesting, but without anything about it that I really love or find special. Bruges is very pretty.

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