You can get guns anywhere.
— Ken (Brendan Gleeson)
“I’m not being funny.” Ray (Colin Farrell) takes himself very seriously in In Bruges. A cocky young assassin who just hours ago completed his first assignment in London, Ray’s now dispatched to Belgium to wait. Surrounded by elaborate architecture, American tourists, and lots of history, he can’t stop fretting. Having botched the job, he’s filled with guilt and remorse. But as much as he insists he’s not joking, the movie repeatedly treats his dilemma as a punch-line.
The first feature by Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, In Bruges is all about contrasts — between foreground and back, innocence and experience, psychopathology and earnest moral questing. One such distinction is embodied in Ray and his veteran partner, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), and exacerbated when they learn they’ve been granted not two but only one room in a quaint hotel on the river: here they do their best to pass time while awaiting a phone call from their boss, Harry (razor sharp Ralph Fiennes), feeling too close against one another even as they tentatively probe what went wrong, and indeed, what is wrong, with their work.
Ray hates the place, so full of history (“Just a load of stuff that’s already happened,” he complains), while Ken is moved by the art and architecture, encouraging Ray to accompany him on touristy jaunts to churches and art museums. Gazing on a Hieronymus Bosch exhibit — human bodies twisted, mechanized, and demented — their faces reveal slight but supremely self-aware confusion. Ray picks up on a theme, the suffering of figures as they’re judged “for all the crimes they’ve committed,” sent to hell or, perhaps worse, “the in-betweeny one,” where you go if “You weren’t really shite, but you weren’t all that good either.” Ray knows where he’s headed, as he’s judged his mistake to be very, very bad.
Each man’s reaction to Bruges parallels his moral journey, short as this may be. As Ray struggles with his crime and culpability, he’s alternately fretful, suicidal, and plainspoken-aggressive (as when he warns an overweight American family against entering the narrow stairway to a church tower: “You’re a bunch of fucking elephants!”). At the same time, Ken ponders his own fate, the identity he’s forged and also the next assignment, and Harry’s imminent decision on Ken’s clean-up after the botched job. When he’s unable to distract Ray with art (in one church, he accuses the younger man of “acting moody like a fucking five-year-old who’s dropped all his sweets”), Ken engages him in philosophical chats — what’s okay to do as a hitman, what’s against the code, how the code might even be fathomed, considering the moral distortions imposed by their career choice.
Ray finds temporary distraction in Chloë (Clémence Poésy), an enchanting PA on a local film set. Ray’s drawn to the location when he spots a little person (“They’re filming! They’re filming midgets!”), then learns the film-within-a-film is an homage to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, another film in a city with canals and dark corners, concerned with guilt and irrecoverable loss. While Ray finds brief respite in the walking tragedy he sees in the film’s featured little person, Jimmy (Jordan Prentice). Ray cites what he considers the well-known fact that “shorters” always kill themselves (Hervé Villechaize, he offers, and “one of the Time Bandits”), in order to poke around in Jimmy’s psyche. In turn, Jimmy offers cocaine, hookers, and the prospect of an upcoming world war that pits “the blacks” against “the whites” (Ray and Jimmy, both white and beleaguered, agree they’ll side with the blacks).
With Chloë, Ray seeks reconfirmation of his virility and prettiness (a careful mirror check on his look for their first date leaves Ken bemused but impressed with the resilience of youth), but finds — at least initially — more confusion. Their seeming tryst is interrupted by her skinhead boyfriend Eirik (a nearly unrecognizable Jérémie Rénier), whose incompetence as the muscle in the couple’s usual tourist-scamming scheme inspires Ray’s furious disdain (“Exactly when was it that all skinheads became poofs?”), though he’s more affronted at being perceived as a tourist.
Ray can’t know that while he’s out, Ken receives dire instructions from Harry, which leads the partners in opposite but strangely similar directions, striving to fulfill their code but questioning it at every step. All their options — increasingly muddled — are trumped, however, by Harry’s strict adherence to his own code (this even as he’s revealed, back in London, with his family at Christmastime, behaving like a good father and a cruelly self-absorbed husband at the same time). As soon as Harry deems Ray’s crime irredeemable, Ken comes to the opposite conclusion, inciting Harry’s own journey to Belgium. With all here killers in Bruges, the film turns a little too Tarantinoesque, which is to say, derivative, homagey and unsurprising.
But for all the showy action and spurty blood, it’s the evolving intimacy between Ken and Ray — offset by Harry’s utter pathology — that is most compelling in In Bruges. Gleeson is especially moving as the aging Ken, realizing at long last the emotional and ethical costs of his choices, made methodically, perhaps, but also without thinking hard enough about consequences. Seeing the effects magnified and speeded up in his newbie partner, Ken faces himself and seeks to punish Harry, an end that’s pretty much impossible. Ken’s self-realization suggests a thoughtful underside to all the garish brutality, fast-paced patter, and easy contempt for the banalities of pop culture.