Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Films: "In Bruges," or, The Importance of Knowing What Kind of Movie You're Making

This week, I watched In Bruges, a movie that failed because it didn't know what kind of movie it wanted to be.  It begins as a kind of crime-comedy, but at some point turns into a tragic bloodbath that finds each of the major characters dead (well, one is unclear, but still).  And it doesn't fuse these halves together well enough to work.   

I enjoy dark comedy, and I think crime comedy is a great niche that hasn't been done to death.  Big Deal on Madonna Street, Pulp Fiction, even Guy Richie's first two movies, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  These are movies that manage to have the criminal elements and the comedic elements at somewhat of a balance: the trick is that they are primarily comedies, I think.  The violence and the crime are played for laughs.  Half of the Coen Brothers' movies run on this concept.

In Bruges focuses on Ray and Ken, two hit men sent to Belgium to wait for further instructions after a botched job.  They're supposed to act like tourists and try not to draw attention, but Ray is impulsive and bored and quickly finds himself mixed up with a drug dealer, her boyfriend, and a dwarf named Jimmy.  There's a great scene where Jimmy goes on a racist rant, leading Ray to karate chop his neck. Ken drags Ray around the city, sightseeing, and finally, their boss Harry calls Ken and orders him to shoot Ray.

In alternating scenes, Ken and Ray get philosophical about heaven and hell, and in a brutal flashback, the job that went wrong is revealed: Ray was assassinating a priest and shot an altar boy in the head on accident.  He is consumed by guilt, which Ken tries to assuage by telling him that he too has accidentally killed an innocent bystander.  Ray has increasing thoughts of suicide, eventually stealing a gun to kill himself.  It's almost like getting a glimpse into another, more dramatic movie.

Up until this point, the movie maintains something of a balance, although the flashback to Ray killing a child is so jarring that the movie loses its comedic momentum.  When Ken decides he can't kill Ray, he sends him away on a train and the movie really falls apart.  Ray gets sent back to Bruges by a credibility-destroying deus ex machina, just as Harry arrives to dispatch Ken.  From there, the movie gets a lot louder and bloodier, and the characters are kind of thrown aside in favor of a gunfight.  Harry even says "This is the gunfight," which felt so inorganic and outside of the movie itself that it almost didn't register in my mind as being an actual line of dialogue.  Everybody--minor characters included--get swept up, and some meet violent and pointless ends. 

The fact that the end of the movie is pretty much an action movie bloodbath isn't my big complaint, though.  There are many movies that end with (or contain) a huge bloodbath that I really enjoy.  Almost anything by Tarantino, for example.  Shakespearean tragediesFargo.  But these movies seem to arrive at it more organically, and I think that's why they work.  And they know what they are.  Kill Bill is a revenge-action-comedy, where things are so over-the-top that the director's intentions are very clear.  Same thing with Fargo, which is a dark and violent comedy all along.  But In Bruges just didn't work, because it didn't pick a side in any clear enough way.

I think a better movie would have focused more on Ken and Ray, without ever showing Harry.  As a voice over the phone, or a profanity-laced note left with the hotel owner, he was a much stronger presence than he was as a character.  It could have been a kind of criminal Waiting for Godot, instead of an uneven, patched together mess.  Or it could have gone the opposite direction and been a violent action movie all the way through.  But I never got the sense that anyone knew which movie they wanted it to be.

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