Martin McDonagh is the Quentin Tarantino of the theater, which is descriptive shorthand for something quite extraordinary.
The Tony-nominated, Olivier Award-winning playwright has single-handedly taken Tarantino’s visceral, blood-and-guts filmmaking style and transported it to live theater, exploding the possibilities of the stage like a lightning bolt. His most recent plays to reach Broadway, The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, both feature graphic scenes of murder and torture (Inishmore, in particular, is a masterful mix of stomach-churning gore and stomach-holding hilarity). Now with In Bruges, McDonagh’s debut feature starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two hitmen forced to take a vacation in a fairytale Belgian city after a botched job, he’s transplanted his fantastic film/theater hybrid onto the big screen, canceling out his own accomplishment in the process and delivering to us what can only be described as “McDonagh lite.”
How can this be? McDonagh’s greatness as a playwright lies in his sheer chutzpah, his willingness to push beyond the polite boundaries of theater. He revels in over-the-top visuals juxtaposed with deadpan dialogue. We’re not used to sitting in the same room, up close and personal, with buckets of fake blood and prosthetic body parts. Anything can happen during a McDonagh play, and does. The night I saw The Pillowman an audience member collapsed. No one was sure if it was part of the production until Billy Crudup stopped the show to ask if there was a doctor in the house. Well, even then we weren’t sure. (Except for Garry Shandling who sneaked out a side door.) Unfortunately, mere blood and gore haven’t pushed cinematic boundaries since the days of Bonnie & Clyde.
Tarantino knows this—which is why he fiddles with structure and time, with genre and the camera itself to create something new. McDonagh, who never directed any of his plays but did win a Best Live-Action Short Film Academy Award for Six Shooter, doesn’t quite know what to do with his newfound cinematic freedom. According to the press notes, McDonagh received an all access pass to film in “the most well-preserved, Medieval city in the whole of Belgium” and came away with footage of gorgeous churches, museums and canals—mostly shot in predictable low angles as the characters idle along in static two-shots. This is downright bizarre coming from an artist whose signature is unpredictability. We see not the “grandness” of the wondrous city but the smallness of a director trying to reduce it all to fit inside his camera’s frame. It’s as if McDonagh’s only comfortable when things squeeze neatly inside a black box theater, which might also explain why so much of the film’s “action” takes place in the hit men’s tiny hotel room, in close-up conversations in front of a Hieronymus Bosch or atop a Vertigo-like bell tower. The camera rarely opens up to reveal what Gleeson’s Ken so adores about the city, nor what Farrell’s Ray finds so unbearably boring. The visuals in In Bruges don’t leave an imprint on your mind the way the highly stylized sets of McDonagh’s plays do. They aren’t as strong or as visceral, seeming to be the result of a Dogma approach (only the found objects happen to be from the Middle Ages). Even the editing is tame, sluggish and bland. McDonagh seems afraid to push the envelope, and when the camera finally does come alive—during a handheld shootout through the quiet cobblestone streets—it’s too little too late.
Basically, McDonagh has taken his brilliant characters from The Lieutenant of Inishmore and rewritten them: Farrell’s Ray is another version of the dimwitted teenager Davey, Gleeson’s Ken is the fatherly Donny, and Ralph Fiennes’ psychopathic boss Harry is another take on Padraic, a terrorist so crazy the IRA refused to have him. Gleeson is a natural in the paternal role, easygoing, relaxed. We witness Ken growing up himself as his feeling of responsibility grows for his pub-crawling colleague, as he tries to enliven the stir-crazy Ray through tours of the magnificent city. Ralph Fiennes is excellent as the brutish Harry, but when has Fiennes ever not been at the top of his game? He always appears effortless, never showing us the hard work that goes into creating a role, only the result. Fiennes is an actor with such immense talent and ability that he can never be miscast. And he understands something about McDonagh that Farrell doesn’t—that the key to all of the writer’s characters is childlike innocence. (When Harry destroys a phone after not getting the news he wants to hear his wife chastises him: “That’s an inanimate object!” she says. “You’re an inanimate object!” Harry retorts.) In essence, Harry doesn’t see the difference between people and things. He’ll kill a man in a heartbeat if denied what he desires. Like a five-year old, he demands instant gratification and lacks impulse control. Fiennes completely comprehends that murderous psychopaths are just little kids who never grew up.
In contrast, Ray is not a psycho, but he’s still very much a child. We don’t see this with the miscast Farrell, an actor with an intensity and intelligence he’s unable to mask. He just doesn’t do McDonagh well. The role of Ray, like the part of Davey in Inishmore, calls for a bumbling innocent who’s gotten sucked into a violent world he doesn’t quite know how to function in. He can exude childlike wonder when he happens upon a film set, yelling excitedly, “Hey, they’re filming something!” Beat. “They’re filming midgets!” then just as easily slip into a pure McDonagh monologue about famous suicidal midgets. If McDonagh had cast someone like the pitch perfect Domhnall Gleeson—a goofy, spacey redhead (who played Davey in Inishmore) with the body of a gangly teen—the lines would have been all the funnier for the character’s wide-eyed political incorrectness. (And Ray’s mistake in London that sets the ball in motion would have been rendered all the more heartbreak—an innocent destroying another innocent.) With Colin Farrell in the role we get an actor playing earnestness, not innocence. There’s heaviness in his character, a weight better suited to the Kafkaesque Katurian in The Pillowman, when he should be simple and light. As a result, McDonagh’s lines are hilarious, but the character’s humor is lost.
But boy are those lines as strong as the hits of cocaine Ray and Ken binge on in the company of two hookers and, yes, a midget, or rather “dwarf” (and a racist one at that!) as Jordan Prentice’s character prefers to be called. Prentice’s Jimmy, a grown man in a child’s body, is the exact opposite of Ray, Ken and Harry, all children in the bodies of grown men. As such, his high-minded demeanor contrasts well when uptight Ray gets upset that Jimmy didn’t wave to him earlier in the afternoon. “I was on a very powerful horse tranquilizer today. I wasn’t waving hello to anyone,” Jimmy purrs like the coolest cat in the room, which he is. “Except maybe a horse.” Beyond the shocking violence, McDonagh’s secret weapon is his razor sharp humor. His characters do and say the most hideous things in one breath, then leave you gasping for air with laughter in the next. Because every major character McDonagh writes is funny they’re likeable, thus human.
I only wish McDonagh would have shown us more of this humanity, rather than told us. There’s a brilliant scene towards the end of In Bruges in which two of the characters are about to engage in a to-the-death shootout inside a hotel. The pregnant owner, Marie, played by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten (McDonagh takes advantage of the regional talent as well as the sites, even the exceptional Jérémie Renier, star of L’enfant makes an appearance) refuses to leave. So rather than risk harm to Marie, they scheme to have one of them jump out a window into a canal while the other counts to ten before running around the block to the canal to begin shooting. (“What if I can’t find the canal?” “It’s a big fucking canal!” “Well, I only just got here, didn’t I?”) And then at the end of this perfect vaudevillian routine Marie says, “You two are crazy.” Yeah, no shit. Rather than just showing us through the actress’ facial expressions and body language, McDonagh inexplicably feels compelled to tell. This is such a beginner’s mistake, so unlike McDonagh—such a “movie line” that never would have appeared in one of his plays—I can’t help but wonder if the swiftness with which the production came together (a year) was a curse in disguise.
Often it feels that McDonagh’s script is as adrift as one of the boats on the shimmering canals. The pace is too slow, at times lagging behind the adrenalin-packed story, the film relying heavily on Carter Burwell’s theatrical score, doing for In Bruges what he did for No Country for Old Men, raising the stakes through crescendos in all the right places. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about In Bruges is its predictable ending. From cats to kids, innocents always die in McDonagh creations. The grand finale of The Lieutenant of Inishmore left me horrified, speechless (and in stitches). In Bruges merely left me wondering what happened to that guy who knocked the breath from an audience member on Broadway.