I admit my viewing tastes are a little skewed – instead of Rambo II (pretty good), the Expendables, or something else blow-uppy I picked a post-modern western about Irish gangsters in Europe. Oh well. I’ve made it through one movie so far – In Bruges – (Netflix streaming). Two sections below – if you haven’t seen it, read that part. If you have seen it and want to see how I overthink things if I have enough time, read the next part which has spoilers. Not all movies have enough substance to be unpacked but this one did.
If you haven’t seen it:
Combination of western, and 90’s era post-Tarantino hitman talkie. Collin Farrell (Ray) is the young buck who doesn’t know what he’s doing or appreciate anything, and Brendan Gleeson (Ken) is the wise, experienced mentor with a code of honor who tries to help him grow up and puts up with him pretty well, mainly because he’s just a stupid kid, and the value of youth is one of the main themes in the movie. Harry (Ralph Fiennes) is the mob boss.
It’s probably known for clever lines and the shockingly offensive and filthy language coming out of Ray’s mouth at all times. It uses the thesis Your Friends and Neighbors does that if you have an offensive jerk of a character, as long as they’re always an offensive jerk of a character and never try to pretend they’re nice and other people put up with them, there must be a hidden gem of goodness about them we can’t see, otherwise they wouldn’t care, and that’s it’s perversely entertaining to see them ping pong against people and see how offended they get. In this case it was for me. Key to casting this character is getting someone remarkably good looking (Collin Farrell, Jason Patric) so that when you start to hate them you are challenged by the “but wait, how can someone so good looking be a jerk?” conditioned response. I can see why it’s divisive, because you’re going to either put up with this guy or you’re not.
Plot-wise it has some nice twists and once characters are established they tend to follow through the whole movie with those personas, conflicts and all, which is kind of satisfying and kind of frustrating at the same time. It does the thing character movies do, which is a slow burn until enough can be revealed of characters to make things interesting. Honestly the first half-hour was kind of bland for me but all of that blandness leads feeds into character development and conflict later, it doesn’t exist for it’s own sake. Which is kind of fun if you can hang in there. I liked a very slight romantic subplot with Ken.
Something strange was the editing. In the first half or so it’s back and forth between beautifully shot scenes of Bruges and conversations, almost rhythmically (A, B, A, B, A, B). But it cut before the reaction shots in the conversations. I don’t quite get what is was supposed to do. It made it sleeker, but it cut short (literally) the character development for me and forced me to get character from the writing. But that may reflect it’s overall leanness – overall there’s not much that isn’t used for pace, plot, theme, or character development.
Another thing happening was I constantly thought violence was going to erupt. I don’t know if I’m out of the loop with action/thriller movies but if it was intentional it was pretty well done in terms of adding tension. If it wasn’t, my radar’s off.
This happens all the time to me, when I go back to get screenshots and review the movie I appreciate it more. Thematically it’s consistent – it’s about what it’s about – youth and honor.
In terms of content – definitely R. Bursts of surprising gore and violence, an excesses of profanity (Tarantino levels of F-bombs), drugs and drinking. No sex or nudity, surprisingly. Yeah, a lot of swearing. Let’s say the word is smiling. This might be a typical sentence for Harry or Ray – “Well I smiling told you the smiling combination, didn’t I? Every smiling time, you smiling racial or gender epithet.”
If you have seen it (spoilers ahoy):
Thematically it’s in the ballpark of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, except instead of being immensely talented and cocky Ray is clueless and crude. It’s all about Ken sacrificing himself for stupid Ray who doesn’t appreciate anything, can’t do anything right, but has time to change and be a good person. The codes of honor lend it to being an old-school western – I’m sure the original blueprint exists, I just can’t come up with it. Ray is chaos but his virtue is he’s young enough to change. He hooks up with a “bad girl” who might have been a prostitute in an old western but in this is a drug dealer. He literally ruins everything – kills a kid accidentally, can’t appreciate the weird peace offering of living in Bruges before he’s going to be punished, loses his temper in a restaurant which brings him back to Bruges from his escape, eventually killing Ken who might have survived Harry shooting his leg if he hadn’t reappeared. He literally does nothing right except feel the emotions you’re supposed to feel when you do something terrible and never hide how stupid and crude he is. Again, I can see why it’s divisive.
Structurally there are a couple of things going on: first, it pulls a neat trick in how it uses seemingly random things to drive the plot – the way Harry (Ray Fiennes) feels the same way about Bruges that Ken does, driving home Ray’s childishness and making Ken’s decision to sacrifice himself tougher because he knows it may not be appreciated, and adding a payoff for the viewers as to why they were seeing so many shots of Bruges: we’re SUPPOSED to appreciate it, like Ray is supposed to. The parallels between the killing of the priest and little boy with Ray and the little person being shot was a little too strong for me – it served the point of showing “honor above all” and all that, and I didn’t see it coming, though it tipped it’s hat that way when the pregnant hotel owner (very glowy Thekla Reuten) could stop the violence by not moving from the stairs because Harry would not hurt a child. But it was too grim for me – the changes in tone in about 20 minutes from laughing at the dwarf’s schoolboy costume to him being blown away so unrecognizably that Harry has to kill himself on principle because he mistakes him for a child was a hairpin turn I didn’t feel was earned, though it was still predicted (thus honest, I guess, plot-wise). It uses callbacks effectively – the “alcove” sidetrack with the Russian arms dealer came back not just once with Harry interacting with him but twice, as a bond between Harry and Ken about how weird a conversation about alcoves is when buying a gun.
It also takes its time in revealing key information, which is frustrating initially and I can’t say I really felt like it paid off later. I guess that’s what we call “a slow burn”. We only find out after he tries to kill himself that Ray’s accidental murder of the little boy was on his first job. If we’d known it sooner we’d likely have less sympathy for him. When it’s revealed after he tries to kill himself, we may feel so much pity for him we can’t turn back emotionally.
The best scenes in the movie were between Harry and Ken, all three of them. Even on the phone, they seemed to have chemistry. The public meeting where they do a combination of chest-puffing and teasing was well-written (profanely) and the scene where Ken surrenders at the top of the tower was really effective for me, reminding me of the last scene in Pulp Fiction with Samuel Jackson. Harry is good and mean – Ralph Fiennes should be more gangsters.