Melancholic music and a torpid pace don’t make In Bruges profound, but they are symptomatic of this phony, pretentious crime film’s schizophrenia. Making his feature-length writing-directing debut, playwright Martin McDonagh (a 2006 Oscar-winner for short live-action film) concocts a premise fit for a lame barroom joke: After a job-gone-awry, two professional U.K. killers, cocky Ray (Colin Farrell) and composed Ken (Brendan Gleeson), are sent by their foul-mouthed boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out in Bruges, Belgium, the country’s best-preserved medieval city and a quaint, touristy locale that newbie assassin Ray loathes and seasoned vet Ken comes to love. It’s a cutesy fish-out-of-water scenario, though one that McDonagh barely milks for laughs, so busy is he taking a faux-ruminative approach that involves references to heaven, hell, sin, and other “deep” topics tidily encapsulated in Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgment, which Ray and Ken thoughtfully discuss during some museum-going.
Forced to go underground because Ray accidentally took the life of a young boy during a hit on a priest, the two murderous protagonists find themselves in a state of purgatory, and so too is In Bruges, mired somewhere between hogwash morality meditations and lewd, offensive humor. Ray is wracked with guilt over the kid’s death and Ken is conflicted over kingpin Harry’s subsequent orders to kill Ray. But how is one to take any of the film’s solemn drama seriously when it’s epitomized by the image of a solitary tear running down Farrell’s cheek that immediately follows a quip-heavy sequence featuring Ray doing coke with a midget actor (Jordan Prentice)—who foresees a forthcoming white-black race war—and some Amsterdam whores? Mercifully, at least Gleeson and Farrell are an appealing duo even when forced to engage in underlined-for-extra-significance existential chitchat, with Gleeson in particular exuding a soulfulness that the clichéd-beyond-belief Ken doesn’t truly deserve.
While far too pleased with stuffing his characters’ mouths full of overly written speeches and one-liners, and far too reliant on cheesy and/or dull genre conventions that culminate in a seriously awkward finale, McDonagh does know how to decently frame a shot. Yet baseline aesthetic competence is small consolation for the uneasy narrative balance struck between levity and graveness, which seems attributable to wimpy indecisiveness, as if the director were alternating tones as a means of avoiding having to fully commit to one or the other. Regardless of the root cause, however, the tenor of his material is hopelessly off, especially in the comedy department, here amounting to Farrell making jokes at little people’s expense, having hoods slander each other as “gay” (or “poof”), and taking some crude, unearned jabs at boorish Americans that—considering the film’s empty, self-consciously “clever” vulgarity and sizeable debt to stateside crime (and crime-buddy) pics—come off as the height of hypocrisy.