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Two Days in Belgium

Though muddled, 'In Bruges' still entertains.

11:00 PM, Feb 7, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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In Bruges

Directed by Martin McDonagh

IT SEEMS THAT THE only characters to live by a moral code on the big screen anymore are hit men. An American soldier is more likely to be a murdering rapist than a honorable man; politicians are corrupt and despicable; businessmen have no scruples or sense of fair play. But the hit man--there's a figure of moral conscience. The most visceral incarnation of this trend is Anton Chigurh, the angel of death stalking the Texas landscape in No Country for Old Men. As embodied by Javier Bardem, Chigurh is simultaneously a bizarre oddity and extremely simplistic: He has a code, and you will live or die by it. There is no bargaining with him--be it for calling heads when the coin says tails or for marrying the wrong man, your fate lies in the hands of his sense of right and wrong. That morality may be twisted and hard to comprehend at first, but it's both consistent and consistently applied.

Likewise, the paid killers that populate In Bruges live by a certain set of rules: killing a priest on purpose in a confessional, fine; accidentally putting a round through the head of a little boy in the process, bad. That's the problem confronting Ray (Colin Farrell) as the movie opens. After a hit on a clergyman goes wrong, he and partner in crime Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent to Bruges ("It's in Belgium," viewers are helpfully informed) for some rest and relaxation. Needless to say, the pair's two week jaunt wasn't intended solely as a sight-seeing trip. Their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, doing a fantastic Vinnie Jones impression) orders Ken to kill Ray for the mistake he's made. The trip to Bruges is Harry's way of giving Ray one last happy memory before he's put into the ground.

The whole situation is terribly ironic, since Ray is miserable in Bruges. He cares nothing for medieval architecture, canal tours, or visiting a church said to hold a relic containing the blood of Christ--but he wouldn't mind getting laid. And herein lies the problem: Ray is totally unbelievable as a remorseful killer. It's not that Farrell gives a poor performance (though it's virtually identical to his recent turn in Cassandra's Dream), he just doesn't have much to work with. One minute he's teasing a hefty American about his inability to climb the narrow staircase in a cathedral, the next he's sighing about killing a child; soon after he's pining for a girl involved in the Belgian film industry, then doing coke with a pair of hookers and a dwarf. There's no consistency of character. His friend Ken is similarly spasmodic: one moment, he's prepared to put a bullet in his partner's head, but when he sees the younger man about to commit suicide he does a complete 180, bundling the still-suicidal Ray onto a train to parts unknown in an effort to save his life.

Ken lives by a code: He spares Ray in the belief that, as a young man who made a mistake on his first job, he could turn his life around and become a useful citizen. Knowing he's betrayed his benefactor and friend Harry, Ken satisfies his own ethics by putting himself at his superior's mercy. And Harry lives by a code, refusing to engage in a shootout when a pregnant woman could get caught in the crossfire and following through on what he said a man should do if he were to kill a child. In the end, even Ray acquiesces to a certain morality, though it feels more like deathbed pleading to God than a heartfelt conversion.

Though muddled, In Bruges remains fast paced, and it's good for a laugh or two. Martin McDonagh has a wit almost as quick as David Mamet's, though sometimes the dialogue is clever just for the sake of being clever. His script is also lazily anti-American. Stereotypes abound: the hyper-obese Yank with a Bronx Bombers cap? Check. A vile, racist piece of filth spreading his moral midgetry after doing enough cocaine to put down a professional wrestler? Check. A restaurant patron complaining about smoking in a restaurant? Well, that guy turns out to be a Canadian. And only upon that realization does Farrell's beating of the man and his wife in the middle of a restaurant become unacceptable.

For a man directing his first feature, McDonagh has a good handle on the film's visual side. An interesting long take occurs when Ken gets the news he is to kill Ray. The shot is fascinating not so much for its technical complexity (there is none: it's done on a handheld camera with a single actor in the room) but for the gamut of emotions Gleeson runs when he receives the news. Aided by the beauty of Bruges itself--this film will serve quite nicely as a commercial for the city's booming tourist trade--In Bruges never lacks for interesting sights. It's too bad McDonagh didn't spend a little more time his characters.

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor atTHE WEEKLY STANDARD.