After the London job goes belly-up, Ken and Ray (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) are ordered by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to the small, quaint and out-of-the-way town of Bruges to lay low. Ken is delighted to get the chance to wander around the medieval town; taking a trip down the canal and rooting around the old cathedrals. Ray, on the other hand, is bored senseless, looking for something to do that doesn’t involve a guidebook. Eventually, he meets the pretty, savvy Chloe (Clémence Poésy), an assistant on an arty film being shot in the town that stars the irascible dwarf Jimmy (Jordan Prentice). Soon, Bruges seems like a lot more fun, as the two lads get involved in a few low-key scrapes, but there are black clouds on the horizon as Harry comes looking for answers and pay-back.
In Bruges is comedy written in shades of midnight, the bumbling to-and-fro of the interaction between the leads and the surreal idiocy of their situation gradually giving way to something approaching desperation, a panicky, fleshy sense of capture underlined by the synchronicities and ironies in McDonagh’s beautifully considered script. For all the twitching nerve endings and splashes of crimson gore, there are bright beams of precisely worded humour and, later, a gracious tenderness approaching a father and son bond in the relationship between Gleeson and Farrell.
Both leads are exceptional. We have come to expect it from Gleeson; his bluff, straight-edged ordinariness and his fluid command of his lumbering body, topped with his motile, agreeable face. Farrell, though, has a lesser recent pedigree but the younger actor overcomes a decidedly shaky start here to deliver one of the best performances of his career, being likeable, honest and unexpectedly witty. Later, as Ray’s story develops, Farrell goes to a sad, lonely place and faces it with extraordinary bravery. He’s really good here. Really.
McDonagh’s script unfolds in a distinct and deceptively unhurried series of revelations, finely handled plot movements placed in a constant flow of word-heavy dialogue scenes. Later, when a moment of silence descends, McDonagh creeps in to fill the frame with his faces and lets these portraits sit. The emotional effect is unsettling and brings about a nimble change in tone as the 'lads-on-tour' mood falls away. The film is strikingly photographed in these composed compositions by Eigil Bryld, giving way to a series of nimble chases. These later sections, heralded by the arrival of the snarling Harry, are carefully - perhaps too carefully - positioned as a series of dramatic synchronicities and referential ironies, but these are minor quibbles in what is a hugely entertaining film.