Independent cinema loves professional hit men. In fact, hit men are so beloved in indies that they've transmogrified into an archetype of something other than just professional killer. They're brooding wits, sociopaths who don't let their dark side overtake their humanity or obscure a command of pop culture that could rival Chuck Klosterman. But In Bruges, written and directed by acclaimed playwright Martin McDonaugh, pushes beyond the indie clichés created by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. The result is a provocative black comedy with surprising depth.
McDonaugh creates three indelible characters for In Bruges -- four if you count the quaint Belgian hamlet where the film takes place. Irish hit men Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, respectively) are ordered by gangster kingpin Harry Walters (Ralph Fiennes) to lay low in Bruges, a town celebrated for being the most well-preserved medieval city in Europe. Ken, a good-natured fellow despite his chosen trade, is happy to play tourist, relishing the opportunity to visit the city's historic churches and museums. Less enthusiastic is his brash and younger partner, who finds the town excruciatingly boring. "If I grew up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges would impress me," Ray grumbles. "But I didn't, and it doesn't."
Bruges is the least of Ray's concerns. The man is haunted by a recent killing in London that went horribly awry with the accidental death of a child. Now, Ray and Ken must await their next directive from Harry, a vicious bloke with a penchant for cursing and a soft spot in his blackened heart for Bruges.
The botched murder weighs heavily on Ray. His only respite comes when he happens on a Dutch movie set, where he meets an attractive drug dealer (Clémence Poésy) and a cocaine-snorting dwarf (Jordan Prentice) who harbors some decidedly racist notions.
McDonaugh is no shrinking violet when it comes to acid-dipped comedy. He peppers the proceedings with a child's death, brutal violence, drug use, politically incorrect quips and enough profanities to fill several Scorsese movies. But the edginess never feels affected. In Bruges is an ardently character-driven story that rarely misses its mark.
The movie still finds room for an amount of meta riffing, with McDonaugh playing on our familiarity with other pictures, particularly crime flicks. He uses a movie set, complete with a dwarf actor enduring the indignities of a dream sequence, to subtly tweak how his characters are impacted by the expectations of cinema-savvy audiences. In the midst of an inevitably bloody climax, an innkeeper urges everyone to put down their guns. "Don't be stupid," scoffs Harry. "This is the shootout."
It is a testament to McDonaugh's writing that such cleverness does not bog the film into being a self-reflexive intellectual goof. Far from it. Anchored by Carter Burwell's beautifully melancholy score, In Bruges is a poignant and powerful morality play, complete with a lean script and vividly drawn characters.
The picture also boasts some excellent performances. Gleeson imbues Ken with warmth, while Fiennes, sporting false teeth, tears into Harry Walters with ferociously impeccable comic timing. Best of all is Farrell. His tormented hit man is a complex blend of tragic hero and clown, a volatile thug blessed -- or cursed -- with an almost childlike vulnerability.
The picture, presented in widescreen anamorphic 2.35:1, is a stunner. Lines are strong and sharp, with inky blacks and solid colors. No complaints.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is excellent, featuring a clear, crisp sound that makes effective use of rear-speaker action. A French track is also available in 5.1, with optional subtitles in French, Spanish and English for the hearing-impaired.
When in Bruges (13:49) is a few cuts above the standard making-of featurette, boasting meaty on-set interviews with cast and crew. Strange Bruges (7:28) is more of a knockoff, with the principal players musing on the city itself (Bruges has amazing beer, we learn). F***ing Bruges (the asterisks are the DVD menu's, not mine) is a montage of the copious vulgarities uttered in the flick, tailor-made for YouTube. On a more tranquil note is the five-minute, 42-second piece called A Boat Trip Around Bruges, which offers a you-are-there glimpse winding through the town's many canals. On a much less essential note is a six-minute gag reel.
Also included are more than a dozen deleted scenes and two extended scenes with an aggregate running time of 18 minutes, 21 seconds (scenes cannot be viewed separately). While one understands why the footage was excised, several scenes help fill in minor gaps, especially some flashback sequences.
Despite its measured pace, In Bruges gets better with repeated viewings. This character-driven gangster flick wrings humor and pathos from situations that would have been formulaic in less-competent hands. As it is, writer-director Martin McDonaugh -- with the help of some exceptional actors -- has fashioned a knockout of a movie.