Martin McDonagh benches the bolder, brasher side of his dramatic writing skills and tries his hand at genre and plot in his highly erratic filmmaking debut, “In Bruges.” Closer to pics like “The Hit” and “Miller’s Crossing” than to McDonagh’s bristling, funny plays, this half-comic, half-serious account of two Irish hitmen who are sent to the titular Belgian burg to cool their heels after a job is moderately fair as a nutty character study, but overly far-fetched once the action kicks in. After pic’s Sundance opener spotlight, Focus should expect generally indifferent critical and aud response during February rollout.
McDonagh’s transition here brings to mind David Mamet (a strong influence on McDonagh’s stage work), who similarly switched from writing plays to writing and directing brainy thrillers for the screen like “House of Games,” “Heist” and “Spartan.” In both cases, men with exceptional gifts for theatrical language feel compelled to suppress many of their nerviest instincts in favor of weak plot-making.
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When basically nothing is going on in the film and McDonagh’s guys are simply exploring the popular Belgium tourist spot, there’s at least some space for Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as (respectively) vet hitman Ken and rookie Ray to bounce off each other, verbally and behaviorally. But the plot machinations expose McDonagh as a poor handler of even semi-logical action, draining the film of any real point once the gunfire and bloodletting end.
In voiceover, Ray explains that the guys have been ordered by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to leave London and go to Bruges, and wait for his phone call. They obediently do, though Ray won’t stop bitching and moaning about Bruges as a “hellhole” and hardly up to the standards of hometown Dublin. Ken, on the other hand, soon enjoys drinking up the town’s preening quaintness and well-preserved medieval architecture.
Even in the early sections, where at least McDonagh can concentrate on his dialogue, there’s a strong sense that the film isn’t about much at all, and what’s there could blow away in a light breeze. Gleeson and Farrell rise above these problems, though, with a warm ease and an enjoyably natural way of depicting guys who like pissing each other off.
The reason the two were sent to Bruges is revealed in a stark flashback (featuring an uncredited Ciaran Hinds as an unfortunate priest) which triggers pic’s only affecting moments, as Ray contends with guilt over flubbing the London kill.
Once Ray gets away from Ken and meets some locals like Chloe (Clemence Poesy), apparently working on a film shoot, and dwarf actor Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), things start to really go off the rails. McDonagh writes himself into corners he can’t get out of, such as a bizarre, cocaine-fueled scene in which Jimmy yammers on about an impending race war between whites and blacks.
But just as the dramatic tension of “In Bruges” appears to rise, the film begins to lose any sense of itself, even as a supposedly affectionate tribute to crime movies (Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” is glimpsed on TV).
Fiennes insinuates his way into the pic with a face that grows hard and a voice that means business; a verbally dazzling meeting with him and Gleeson in a cafe at night shows McDonagh at his profane best. But the action grows more ludicrous by the minute, and even the usually reliable and interesting composer Carter Burwell can’t effectively pump things up.
Fascinating angle here is the presence of fine Continental thesps, especially Jeremie Renier (“L’Enfant”) in an incongruous role as a young grifter and Gaul’s Poesy as a love interest with edges.
McDonagh shows no imagination or fire behind the camera, and his uses of Hieronymus Bosch paintings and figures seem like an obvious way of referencing Ray’s idea of hell. Bruges city boosters will be over the moon — if not with Ray’s commentary, then with pic’s location choices.