The first feature film directed by award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh weaves a darkly comic tale of two Irish assassins on the lam in a picturesque Belgian town packed with tourists. Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes co-star; and Alan Silverman has this look at In Bruges.
It starts with a murder for hire in England; but when the foul deed goes wrong, the crime boss who ordered the killing sends the two hit men to the continent until things cool down. Safe in the medieval town of Bruges, Belgium, the more experienced of the killers - Ken (played by Brendan Gleeson) - is happy to have time among the historic churches and museums.
The younger of the two, Ray (played by Colin Farrell), struggles to cope with the horror of what they committed in England; but he does little to hide his disdain for what he considers dusty, musty relics with far too many tourists.
Meanwhile, their fate is in the hands of Harry: Ralph Fiennes as the mercurial crime boss who sent them to their Belgian hideout in the first place and then decides his underworld code of honor demands he go there too.
Writer-director Martin McDonagh insists he is not picking on Bruges. He explains the idea for this twisted morality tale grew out of his own visit to the historic city.
"I went on a two-day vacation from London where I live, to Bruges on the train, not knowing anything about the town, really," he explains. "I think I had seen a picture and knew it was pretty, but that was about it ...and I was just kind of enamored by the place: one of the most picturesque, fairy tale-like, strange, medieval, gothic, creepy places I had ever been to. So I went to all the museums and the churches and by the middle of the second day I was just bored out of my head and wanted to get drunk and leave. Those two sides of me kind of started arguing with each other - the culture-loving freak and the drunk - and they became characters. Then I thought 'why would two people be in a place like this when they didn't need to be or have to be?' That's when the plot of the hit men who were escaping a job popped up."
"The whole job was an adventure, really. Taking that script and realizing it was a wonderful adventure to be on," adds Colin Farrell, who says his own experience in the medieval town was colored by the character's despair over the murder that sent him there.
"You know the way you kind of bring to a place how you are feeling? Whatever that mood may be, you can go to the same place in the world two different years and you'll find two different places. It is not the place that's changed, but whatever your feeling is going there," Farrell says. "With that in mind, playing the character of Ray ...not that I was depressed all the time, but I was basically playing a character who is suicidal for three days and I found Bruges kind of fittingly oppressive, which is not to say the city was that way. It's a beautiful city."
McDonagh peppers even the most sinister situations with humor, which he says the characters and the audience need.
"They are escaping from a pretty horrific situation," he notes. "One of the characters is in the depths of despair about it with guilt and all that stuff. So even though I wanted to explore those themes - guilt and despair and possibly redemption - I never like to do anything with a heavy hand. I think seeing things with humor leavens that darkness."
Farrell agrees that the humor guides the story through its unexpected turns; but it also makes In Bruges harder to label.
"The generic thing that will get thrown around - and it's not without justice - is that it's a black comedy; but I think there's an incredible weight to it as well. Martin is smart enough that he writes in a way that he respects the audience and allows them to derive from it whatever they choose to derive ...whatever they naturally find they get from it," Farrell says. "I've heard people come out of it and thought it was a hilarious comedy; I've heard people who thought there were a lot of profound questions that were brought up. People seem to have different reactions, which is always great."
In Bruges was shot on location in the Belgian city (which so welcomes the attention it has published tour guides marked with the story's settings). The film opened the 2008 Sundance Festival in January and is the opening feature February 15, at the Dublin Film Festival.