||Bruges in Belgium is a medieval town previously best known for its centuries-old architecture and religious artefacts, but since 2008 that fame turned to something more cinematic. This was thanks to playwright Martin McDonagh making his debut feature there in 2008, aptly titled In Bruges, which had been inspired by a tourist trip a few years before when he had been in two minds about how he felt about the place. Sure, it was a region of great beauty, and with a wealth of history behind it, but after being initially impressed with both those things, a terrible, very modern thing occurred: McDonagh began to grow seriously bored.
Instead of keeping this Philistine streak to himself, it inspired him to write a screenplay which he directed himself, and In Bruges very quickly gained international recognition as something worth paying attention to, a brand-new talent on the movie scene. Whether McDonagh fulfilled that promise is a matter of personal opinion, for his follow-up, Seven Psychopaths, transplanted him to America, but was rather more glossed over. His effort after that, however, was a pretty big hit and nominated for a bunch of awards some of which it won, including Oscars for the cast of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; yet that was not without controversy.
There were complaints that the most racist character in the film seemed to get away with his prejudice unchallenged, or not challenged enough, which turned some audiences off the whole picture, though one look at In Bruges and you would recognise characters with unpalatable views and language were pretty much what McDonagh used as his tools to get his themes and points across. The two men in that film were assassins, from Ireland, who have been instructed to hide out in the titular locale after their last hit went horribly wrong. One of these men is a very good hitman, the other, well, not so much.
Brendan Gleeson played the elder killer and Colin Farrell the younger, possibly in the finest roles they would ever have though they are still working successfully. Certainly In Bruges was a heck of a lot more interesting than the blockbusters Hollywood crowbarred Farrell especially into, not really grasping that he was not as easy to cast as he appeared, yet here he slipped into the role of a guilt-ridden murderer like a hand into a glove, and it remains one of the best things he has done, proof that he could genuinely act well to refute those who had watched him struggle in the more mainstream efforts he tried out to mixed effect.
Bruges seems an odd place for two Irish hitmen to be placed, but we do get an explanation which makes more sense if you know the director's past with it, rather than the gang boss Ralph Fiennes' explanation for despatching them there (he's a fan of the architecture and thinks the place looks like a fairyland). You can predict why this would be desirable early on, as a bloodbath is all but inevitable, and as with other films from this talent violence was a part of the characters' lives, though here that is more by choice than having it foisted on them by outside forces; this was a gangster flick at heart, but the dialogue sang.
Sang in a very sweary manner, of course, as this was one of those items that test the limits of how much bad language they can fit in, reaching back to the likes of Slap Shot or Raging Bull, but if that was all this was about then it would be a hollow experience indeed. Yet there was a spiritual dimension: imagery about Purgatory and Hell itself abounded, giving a metaphorical slant to the initial boredom, turning to grief, then to dread, the two leads feel, every example of which was linked to the religious architecture and art around them. This could have been superficial, but the cast used humour and drama in tandem to offer depth.
McDonagh's interest in exploring big themes through the medium of black comedy did not begin with In Bruges, as it was not his first film. His first feature, yes, but not the debut work as he had made Six Shooter in 2004, a half-hour short piece that showed the direction he would be taking on the big screen. It was a story suffused with tragedy, but was so bleak that the only reaction was to laugh, if you did not do that then you would probably stop watching about halfway through, say when the woman whose baby son has just died of cot death is tripped up by the insulting young man she is being pestered by on the train they are taking to Dublin.
There are more people on the train, most importantly Brendan Gleeson, here making his first appearance for McDonagh, who played a widower who was at a loss of what to do next now his wife has passed away that morning. Ruaidhri Conroy took the role of the young man who had no social airs or graces, let alone an understanding of how to behave around others without offending them, sort of a dry run for the Gleeson/Farrell dynamic in In Bruges, though Conroy was far less reined in, no matter that Farrell regularly blurted out the wrong thing or used his fists to get his point across, or out of a tight corner he had landed himself in.
There is a guessable hint early on in a conversation with Gleeson's wife's doctor how this is going to unfold, but though there were big laughs for those with a strong sense of humour, what you took away from Six Shooter was the message that a complete stranger may well be going through a truly dreadful time you will be oblivious to. Therefore maybe you should take a little more care in how you treat others, and not be like Conroy's possible psychopath, for there is enough misery in the world without you adding to it with your lack of empathy or simple carelessness. That was not the conclusion of In Bruges, though it could have been, it was more about the reckoning you may face and whether you can redeem yourself as a result: Hollywood loves a redemption yarn, which brings us back to Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
[In Bruges has been rereleased on Blu-ray in a special edition by Second Sight. Those features in full:
Six Shooter: Martin McDonagh's Oscar Winning Short Film in HD
Shoot First, Sightsee Later: A New Interview With Director of Photography Eigil Bryld
Finding the Rhythm: A New Interview With Editor Jon Gregory
Finding Bruges: A New Interview With Production Designer Michael Carlin
The Alcove Guy: A New Interview With Actor Eric Godon
When in Bruges - interviews with cast and crew and on-set footage
Strange Bruges interviews with cast and crew and on-set footage
Boat Trip Around Bruges
Optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing
And for the Limited Edition:
Rigid slipcase featuring new artwork by Thomas Walker
Faber and Faber screenplay with exclusive cover artwork by Thomas Walker
50 page soft cover book with new writing by Ian Christie, Dr Eamonn Jordan (author of From Leenane to LA: The Theatre and Cinema of Martin McDonagh) and Bomb Magazine archive interview with Martin McDonagh.]