In Bruges (2008)

Rating: B+

Dir: Martin McDonagh
Star: Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy

After an assignment, two hitmen – Ray, a hot-tempered novice (Farrell), and Ken, a grizzled veteran (Gleeson), are sent to Bruges by their boss (Fiennes) until the coast is clear. Ray is notable less impressed than Ken by the medieval city, venomously spitting, “If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t, so it doesn’t.” However, he meets Chloe (Poésy), on the set of a film that’s basically a homage to Don’t Look Now – including the midget – and she manages to make him forget the reason he and Ken were sent to Belgium in the first place.

Their boss, however, hasn’t, and a single phone-call to Ken in the middle of the movie, flips the switch off the comedic aspects (or, at least, sets them firmly to black humour). With the specifics of their previous mission revealed, the stage is then set for the looming tragedy that fills the second half to capacity, and then flows over. And that’s the key to what makes this movie work. It could have been a jaunty “quirky hitman” caper and been thoroughly enjoyable (unless Quentin Tarantino did the script), or a grim crime drama and worked equally well. Rare is the film which could manage both, yet somehow, writer-director McDonagh manages to pull it off with astonishing success, especially for someone who has never made a feature before in either capacity – his previous short, Six Shooter, did win an Oscar, and he has a long track record as a playwright.

He’s helped by great performances from both leads; Gleeson, in particular, is outstanding, though Fiennes makes the most of his role, despite not being seen until late in the film. The first half expertly draws you in, and makes you care about Ray and Ken, setting you up for the emotional car-crash which is to come. If some of the plot twists do stretch credibility, by the time they arrive, you’ve entirely bought into the characters, and they hardly matter.