It is said that on the final day, the Son of Man will return to earth and separate the good from the evil, the wicked from the wise. Surrounded by the most well preserved medieval chapels and canals in Europe, hit men Ray (Colin Farrell, “Saving Mr. Banks”) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson, “Calvary”) are sent to Bruges to await their personal Judgment Day after a horrific, botched job leaves an innocent victim dead.
While the details of the ill-fated hit are cursory, an unnamed priest messes up badly enough to leave a price on his head, the result is not: bullets go astray and kills a boy. For the rest of the movie, Ray tries to reconcile his childlike nature with his line of work and the murder in question.
Despite the heavy subject matter, “In Bruges” can turn from existential to hilarious on a dime. Director Martin McDonagh expertly strikes a balance between dreary and funny. And if it weren’t for the exceptional performances of the Gleeson and Farrell, McDonagh’s writing wouldn’t shine like it does.
Ray is a man-child who knows how to use a gun. He’s in desperate need of guidance, which the fatherly Ken provides with a healthy dose of annoyance. Where Ray wants to hit the bars and drink a pint, Ken would rather row through the canals, visiting chapels and Bruges’ central bell tower.
Propelled by the sheer force of McDonagh’s narrative, each actor wrings the script for all its worth. Their performances are incredible and their chemistry even more so. The numerous scenes with Gleeson and Farrell strut every inch of the emotional spectrum.
“At the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile that with the fact that, yes, I have killed people. Not many people. And most of them were not very nice people,” Ken muses during a poignant conversation with Ray.
As a foil to the two hit men, Chloe (Clemence Poesy, “Mr. Morgan’s Last Love”) balances the insanity with a level head and an even stranger profession.
But it’s Ralph Fiennes (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) as the eternally pissed off Harry, Ken and Ray’s boss, who steals every scene he’s in. While his presence pervades the whole movie, he only shows up in the last 45 minutes. He can go from cordial to comically furious to terrifying in a matter of seconds. Fiennes’ performance really is master class.
For all of its hilarity and brutality, “In Bruges” walks a fine line between pitch darkness and impossible poignancy. Add in an abundant dose of Irish culture, like the climactic use of Luke Kelly’s “Raglan Road” rendition in one of the final scenes, the movie becomes something of a touchstone. With all their talk of Judgment Day and purgatory, it’s hard not to hope that Ray and Ken make it through the pearly gates.