Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 14, 2008 2:12 pm 
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The murder business, with tears and laughter

A friend of mine saw this before I did and said it was a strange thing, but he found Colin Farrell's performance award-worthy.

It is a strange thing.

Has Martin McDonagh, of the brilliant plays, made the transition to film successfully--as both writer and director? Yes and no. In Bruges is a little gem--but with the emphasis on "little." The squabbling gangster duo (and their boss), the violence, and the feisty dialogue recall Tarantino; so does the fun with political incorrectness. But McDonagh hasn't the flair or cinematic richness of Tarantino at his best. The filmmaking is adept, the direction is excellent, the images are surprisingly dark and handsome, but the mise-en-scene is tame. In fact very much is made of how boring (though beautiful, and perfectly preserved) the Belgian city of Bruges is. Though it is, in a sense, all about the diaogue, which sparkles, startles, and amuses, the material is simple. The dialogue doesn't open up mind-blowing and astonishing worlds as does that of Pillowman, the play that McDonagh himself thinks has set the highest standard, of his works.

A novice hitman working in London, Ray (Farrell) botches his first hit. He's sent to Bruges with his pal Ken (Brendan Gleeson). Later their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) enters the scene. Along the way there's a pretty girl, a film set, a dwarf Ken and Ray meet on the set, a hotel clerk, an antiquarian named Yuri (Eric Godon) who dispenses guns, a skinhead, and tourists, whom Ray insults, thinking they are American.

McDonagh has fun with Bruges, "the most perfectly preserved medieval city in all of Belgium." It does make a nice setting for a movie, if a largely static one, like a stage set but in 3-D. But Bruges is something you can do better in a movie; its beauties wouldn't translate to the stage; best to go there and film them. It's ironic that a couple of Irish hit men with an English boss should be stuck there. And for a while McDonagh is content with riffing on that. You don't need much for his kind of verbal comedy. The Irish have such a way with words. Look at what Beckett could do with two bums on a bare stage.

McDonagh has said the source of this movie was a visit to Bruges he made himself. He enjoyed the tourist sites for a day or so, and then he was done with the "culture" and wanted some "fun," "to get drunk," as he's put it in interviews, "and get laid." Ken and Ray embody the two sides of his experience: Ken is for the culture and Ray, who's not interested in history ("It's just a lot of stuff that's already happened," he says), is for fun.

This is good for laughs (I almost wrote "laffs") but underlying the story is a terrible scene we actually, vividly, witness, in which Ray kills an innocent bystander, for which he is tormented by guilt. It's this cock-up that leads to the duo's furlough in Belgium. Eventually after the boss comes in, there's a lot of blood: laughs and blood are two things Martin McDonagh knows how to deliver in a devastating one-two punch.There also has been by then a knockout and a blast in the face and a coke party in which the dwarf who's a movie actor from America predicts a coming war between blacks and whites in which you won't have to take sides: you'll have no choices.

The success of all this in a film shows that Martin McDonagh is a slick operator. It doesn't show if--whether on the screen or on the stage--he is going to sustain the genius he showed when he wrote seven plays in a year or so nine years ago. Another thing it does show, is that Colin Farrell, who's turned away from his popularization by Hollywood, has perfect pitch for this kind of thing, and can go from scornful to desperate without losing his puppy-dog charm. Girls still go wild for his black moth eyebrows. The American critics don't seem to have been terribly impressed by In Bruges, however. It is a fine performance but a minor one, as a film.

You will enjoy it more, I should think, if you have not seen the US trailer for it, which as so unfortunately and so often happens nowadays presents six or seven or eight of the key scenes of the movie with the best dialogue zingers culled out of them in a row, so that as you watch the movie, especially if you've been subjected to the same trailer five times as I was, you'll find yourself haplessly ticking the scenes off as they appear in context. And because the tone is so right in McDonagh's writing, and, especially when Farrell is talking (but Fiennes and Gleeson and the others are all extremely good), each of these zingers encapsulates a big chunk of the movie. And this kills all the freshness of it. I wish movie promoters would stop doing this. It's a virtual crime. They should be sent to Bruges and made to stay there forever.

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