In Bruges is a very very good film. It isn't hard to see that it is a very good effort- and numerous people have seen that but it is more difficult to describe why. Basically the story goes that two Irish hitmen have been sent to the Belgian city, Bruges, after a killing that they've performed for Harry, their London boss. Skulking in Bruges, they encounter a wide variety of characters- from sexy Belgian drug dealers, to midget American actors, fat American tourists, a gun salesman who likes talking about alchoves and practising his English and a set of Dutch prostitutes. Also Harry at one point reenters the story giving one of the assassins, Ken, a mission to perform. All of this takes place against the background of church towers, canal trips and art galleries- thinking about death and man's place in the world and copious ammounts of beer.
Putting that out there might make the film seem merely a surrealist piece of work, but it isn't. The reality is provided by the humour- its outrageous and outrageously funny. The younger assassin, Ray, spends most of his time taking the mickey out of people- turning to American tourists and telling them they won't make it round the bends in a spiral staircase because they are so fat, he is offensive, irritating and obnoxious but unbeleivably accurate and funny. There are some truly wonderful moments here where phrase and situation are linked- where say Ray captures something wonderfully and puts it in a line which presents the outrageous thought in all its originality and its accuracy. Take for example his comment on Bruges,
Look, Ken. I grew up in Dublin, and I love Dublin. If I had grown up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn't, so it doesn't.Could you encapsulate that attitude any better than with that line of dialogue- just think of it, the economy of the way that the words present the sentiment. It is not a nice sentiment- but as language it is almost perfect and perfect lines slip out of the mouths of all of the characters here. This is a movie about words- I listened to an interview with Colin Farrell who is one of the movie's stars and said that he didn't ever feel like changing a line of the film because it was so perfect and I think he was right. To add to it, Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the main leads, give fantastic performances as do a range of actors, from Ralph Fiennes to Clemence Poesy, in supporting roles.
The film sits obviously in several traditions. Fiennes's character owes a lot to Michael Caine in Get Carter. Indeed the whole persona of the gangster in the film owes a lot to Caine and earlier gangster characters. These men operate violently but seem to disregard the violence that they commit in favour of adherance to a code of honour, of morality. At one point Ken turns to Harry and tells him to do what he likes to him, he (Ken) has done his job and no ammount of torture or violence could make his choice different. In that sense noone is tortured in this film- people are maimed, killed and beaten up but torture is absent. That kind of violence has no meaning. Moral choice is independent of and over and above violence- it stands in another category. I lied slightly, the only torture in this film is the torture of guilt and in a way violence represents an escape for the characters from that torture.
The obvious tradition that this film sits with is the films of Quentin Tarrantino- but In Bruges demonstrates how poor Tarrantino's films actually are. I've expounded before on how much I dislike the philosophical outlook of Reservoir Dogs- and I have similar views about Pulp Fiction and his other movies. But I think this is what Tarrantino's fans often claims he does- this combines the gangster severity of Scorsese and a whole line of films going back to Jimmy Cagney along with the theatrical imagination of wit of a Beckett. This film obviously owes something to Waiting for Godot. But its violence is much more serious and it has a wider purpose than just making a reference- violence in this film is very serious, it ends lives and goes through lives. Humour here is not adolescent but is bitter- based on the deep sorrows. Ray almost seems to be psychologically falling apart as the film goes on- his life is slowly eroded by an act of violence, accidental violence perpetrated before the start of the movie.
Away from such paltry traditions leading onwards from Tarrantino: the film's consideration of violence is deeply embedded in Christianity. The graphic fantasy of what violence might look like- what torture is- is abandoned. What we have here is the development of two ethoses- a pagan ethos- noble warriors whose roots lie in an honour cult which comes up against the idea of forgiveness, the idea of a second chance. On the one side, we have a symbolic act of suicide- once you have failed for whatever reason you take the hemlock- as Thrasea did under Nero- and in suicide become a hero, on the other side, there is the Christian view of suicide: that there is no sin that kills you, that suicide is an abandonment of life and the opportunity of doing something to repair your sin, that redemption is possible and proceeds through forgiveness. In that sense- with those two oppositions, the film seeks to understand some of the fundamental conflicts within western civilisation (conflicts that interestingly for instance often demonstrate how little Christianity works as a label): at the end of the film some of the characters conform to their pagan stereotypes and that is where the last and perhaps most theological vista is opened up.
In the midst of the film, the two main characters go to an art gallery and look at some of those wonderful portraits of hell done by medieval artists- it strikes me that this is the twentieth century equivalent of a 14th Century depiction of the day of judgement. Two of Ray's comments expose this, working around historical Bruges is an analogy for him for dwelling in his own hellish past, towards the end of the movie he realises that Bruges itself is hell- this film is the navigation, the description of that hell- and its vital to understand how the pagan ethic of the protagonists, shorn of forgiveness, leaves them all stuck in Bruges for all eternity!