by Bill Gallagher
Martin McDonagh. Remember that name. He’s the Irish/English playwright, stage director,
screenwriter, and movie director making his long-anticipated jump from the stage to the big
screen. “In Bruges,” his first full-length movie, will bring his blood-soaked, black comedy to
thousands who would never have a chance to see one of his award-winning plays.
In London’s West End theater district only one other playwright besides McDonagh has ever had
four plays running at the same time. That was William Shakespeare. McDonagh’s got a talent to
be reckoned with. But his stuff’s not for everyone.
Take the premise of “In Bruges” (pronounced: in broozh). Two men who make a living killing
people are sent from London to Bruges (which is in Belgium, by the way) to chill out after one of
them badly botches a hit on a Catholic priest. I could tell you how badly it’s botched, but then
you’d want to kill me. Turns out that one of the two will be ordered to kill the other one.
Meet Ken and Ray. Ken (Brendan Gleeson) seems to be way too nice a guy for his profession.
He’s perfectly content to take in the wonderful sights in Bruges. Ray (Colin Farrell), on the other
hand, is a very troubled man for reasons we’ve yet to grasp as the movie begins. He’ll have none
of the sightseeing stuff.
“If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I grew up in
Dublin,” he tells Ken.
Welcome to the world of Martin McDonagh. Before the movie’s done, he’ll have offended far
more people than retarded agrarians.
Because Ray so badly blew his first assignment, he’s got to go. This Ken learns when he receives
a phone call from Harry (Ralph Fiennes). But you know from the get-go that Ken’s not going to
carry out the hit. Or do you? There’s no back story that would let us know what Ken’s really
like. Maybe he only killed really bad guys, you know?
That short plot summary doesn’t do justice to the surprising depth of “In Bruges.” You’ve got
McDonagh’s brilliant banter between Ray and Ken. It’s profane, but it’s also — maybe I’m
stretching a bit here — profound. Ray is obviously suffering great angst. But he’s not above
rallying when he nabs a date with a local gal he met at a film shoot. And Ken’s in their shared
hotel room with a view reading his guide books and relishing how Ray checks himself out in the
mirror as he preps for his night out on the tourist town.
“In Bruges” gives us a nice new take on the buddy movie. You know the formula. Think “Lethal
Weapon” with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. The young buck and the older and wiser pro.
McDonagh turns formula upside down in making his men criminals rather than cops. But
criminals with a lot of compassion.
Then there’s the issue of McDonagh’s black comedy. Dark black. Those four plays he had
running simultaneously in London all dealt with dysfunction, death and dismemberment. But the
dialogue was hilarious. Sound a little jarring? Not quite your cup of tea? I’ve spent a few minutes
wondering what I find so entertaining about “In Bruges” and the plays (“Beauty Queen of
Lehane,” “A Skull in Connemara,” “The Lonesome West,” “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “The
Lieutenant of Inishmore,” and “The Pillowman”). My conclusion: They’re very funny, they take
one to unexpected places, and deal with the matters at hand in a new and unique way. Hey, what
more can you ask from entertainment?
“In Bruges” wouldn’t work as well as it does without the talents of Gleeson and Farrell. (Fiennes
is excellent as well, but he’s just a voice on the phone until the last quarter hour of the film.)
Gleeson is also in McDonagh’s Academy Award-winning live action short called “Six Shooter.”
(You can download it from iTunes). I’ve liked this guy a lot since I first saw him as the boyhood
friend to Gibson’s character in “Braveheart.” Here he plays a man who may kill people for a
living but hasn’t let that fact kill his soul. Gleeson didn’t start acting until he was 34 but has been
busy since then, and while he’s not landed that “breakthrough” part yet, you will never be
disappointed by his performance. His best work, for my money, is in “The General,” in which he
plays an Irish mob boss/art thief named Martin Cahal. Check it out.
As for Farrell as Ray, the troubled young professional killer, he’s brilliant. Seems like he almost
got caught in the maw of the Hollywood bad-boy machine. (A male Britney Spears? Perish the
thought, please.) But here he shows he can play the tough guy, the comic, the lover, and the
unfortunate victim of a life that’s just not fair. He’s got a way with an unlikely pick-up line.
When he meets Chloe (Clemency Poesy), who’s dealing drugs to a dwarf at a movie set, he tells
her, “A lot of midgets tend to kill themselves. Look at Herve Villechaize!” You’ve got to hear
this line delivered with a Dublin accent to really appreciate it. She does. And he’s in. Only to
have his encounter back at her place interrupted by an angry boyfriend brandishing a gun that
shoots only blanks. Ray head-butts him, takes the gun away, and shoots him in the eye. Even
when it’s shooting blanks, that hurts.
While there may not seem to be much to the plot — one hit man assigned to do what he does to
his fellow hit man — McDonagh is masterful when it comes to putting meat on those bones.
That midget, er, dwarf will be around at the climax to play a key role dressed as a school boy.
That gun taken from the jealous boyfriend will be an important prop. Even the small change Ken
pockets when an officious Flemish attendant at the sightseeing tower rejects it comes back before
“In Bruges” is over.
McDonagh says his influences are David Mamet, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarrantino. And
it shows. But in many ways he’s ahead of the directors mentioned in this, just his first effort. As
a playwright he doesn’t go for the big score the way movie men Scorsese and Tarrantino do. He
trusts language to convey ideas and emotions. He uses visuals sparingly, and well. He’s been
handed a beautiful setting in Bruges but never lets us forget that it’s really just kind of a
“In Bruges” isn’t perfect. It doesn’t flow as smoothly as the work of a more seasoned director
might. And there is the “intelligibility” issue. Gleeson’s and Farrell’s Dublin accents can sound a bit thick to the untrained ear. As a result you’ll miss some of McDonagh’s lines. That’s a shame.
But these two have such a way with his words that it’s a trade-off worth taking. (When “In
Bruges” comes out on DVD just activate the English subtitles.)
McDonagh’s mastery extends to the clever structuring of his scripts. Everything seems to
eventually lead to something else that serves the plot and has the audience going “Aha!” He’s
full of surprises big and small. By the time “In Bruges” comes to its bloody denouement, Harry
the taskmaster has become a victim of mistaken identity involving the aforementioned dwarf. It’s
a brilliant, fitting conclusion.
It’s hard to say what’s next for McDonagh. He wrote all those plays in a two-year burst of
creative genius when he was still in his 20s. Now he’s knocked out a minor masterpiece in his
mid-30s. He says he thought he’d make just this one movie, but that he had so much fun he
might try another one. One can only hope so.
Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes
the monthly movie column for BNW.
BrainstormNW - March 2008