Tuesday 18 March 2008

In Bruges. A Review.

Martin McDonagh. A bona fide gifted playwright. Martin McDonagh. An Oscar winner. Martin McDonagh. A man whose scripts are prone to the odd expletive and even odder socially irresponsible diatribe... In Bruges. Martin McDonagh's debut feature as both screenwriter and director. In Bruges. A very satisfying and worthwhile cinematic experience indeed. Which is nice.

The buddy/crime/hitman templates have been well battered by mainstream movie makers over the years, yet they still permit a talented scribe a lot of room in which to maneuver. Thankfully, McDonagh is such a scribe. Theatre enthusiasts will already be aware of his effusive dialogic style - the Aran Islands trilogy, The Pillowman. The question is then, how his distinctive style translates to a tried and trusted cinematic (sub)genre. Allow me a brief digression, if you will... Thomas Schatz, a film theorist, once wrote that genre is both "a static and a dynamic system". There are tenets and conflicts within a genre that must remain constant throughout a genre's development. Yet the techniques with which the writer/director tackles this essential conflicts can change. Fluidity is key... Old Tom was spot on really. Basically, it is up to the writer/director to prescribe to or fuck with generic rules as he sees fit. A craftsman will always attempt to do both. As does McDonagh here.

Take the setting for example. Crime films and Belgian towns do not make for common bedfellows. Therefore the intrigue is instant. As is the subtle majesty of Bruges. The medieval architecture is bewitching and ethereal. It helps to lift McDonagh's narrative out of the dregs of genre - casinos, inner city whorehouses, country clubs - and allude to something more substantial. Yet the fairytale aesthetic constantly reinforces the fiction of proceedings. Is this meant as a parable? Entirely up to you.

The most important thing is that this is a bloody entertaining film. For me, McDonagh's dialogue here is on a par with any of his previous creations. His ear for the intricacies of Irish camaraderie/vulgarity remains unparalleled. The "fucks" and belly laughs are plentiful. This film is a twisted equal opportunities offender, yet is nevertheless in possession of an insistent heart. That heart's beat is supplied by the chemistry between the two leads. Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) are two lovingly drawn characters, but McDonagh would have been stranded without the pitch perfect realisation from both actors... Gleeson is brilliant as the withered and worldly Ken. His hitman-beginning-to-see-the-bigger-picture is one that effortlessly sidesteps the clichés normally associated with such roles. However, it is Farrell that steals the show. His is a blistering performance, alternating rapidly and seamlessly between slapstick comedy, vicious outbursts of violence, tender sweetness, and an all consuming depression. Ray is an idiot at times, but he is always a relatively well-intentioned sort. A man who is perhaps not really cut out for his current line of work.

Alas, it is time for a complaint or two. Whilst an impressive debut, there are still a few faults to be found in Bruges. McDonagh displays some moments of inspired directorial ability - the coke scene, the playground scene. However, he also quite often highlights his relative filmic inexperience. There are some occasional shifts in tone and pace that just don't sit right. Especially in the final reel. Which brings us to the ending. It is a very fine exercise in screenwriting technique and formalistic invention, but it grates somewhat with the breathless and irreverent messiness of what goes before it. The fervent machinations (and characters) of McDonagh's mind seem to have been reined in by the need for an oh-so-clever denouement. The result? A serious bang of contrivance. A pity. It's a confusion that often permeates a first feature. A narcissism on the part of a fledgling director coming from a sphere of prior adulation? Perhaps.

Ultimately, however, these are only minor quibbles. Any late upsets - and slight ones at that - are completely overshadowed by the fiercely enjoyable and energetic first two acts. This film is hilarious, yet there are also moments of visceral pathos and emotion. As the strength of the relationship between Ken and Ray becomes more apparent, one cannot but be touched by their respective moral dilemmas and existential ennui. A sense of decency and a nagging moral compass,
"gay beer", and a contractual obligation to murder... Never easy is it?


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