First, let’s get something absolutely clear: though it says nothing about it on the box, this is a foreign language movie. Some intelligible English is spoken, here and there, mostly by Belgians, but all of Colin Farrell’s dialogue is in Irish. Not Gaelic, but in an Irish accent so thick, so impenetrable, that I’d wager there’s plenty of people in Dublin who wouldn’t understand it. Five minutes in, I realized I’d understood almost nothing he’d had to say, and very little of what his buddy, Brendan Gleeson, said. But (praise the wonks who developed it), we live in the age of the DVD, and if those shiny little disks had done nothing else of worth they would have justified themselves with just that little button on the remote that says SUBTITLES. Most DVDs have them, sometimes in multiple languages. What I ordered up was English for the Hearing Impaired, so we got a lot of titles saying things like (Clears throat) or (♫ Music playing ♫), but that’s okay. Now, Colin would mutter and swallow a few wretched syllables, and an acre of print would appear on the screen! Lord, he couldn’t have said all that, could be? Apparently so.
Now, on to the movie itself. I’d best insert a half-hearted SPOILER ALERT here, because I’m going to discuss a few plot secrets … but they are secrets that are revealed fairly early in the movie, and you’ve probably heard of them. (I will not discuss the ending, which was a bit of a surprise.) Ken, the old hand (Brendan Gleeson), and Ray, the new guy in the business (Colin Farrell) are hit men who have botched an assassination and have been sent to Bruges to “cool off.” Ray is pretty upset, unable to enjoy the sights of Bruges that Ken is reveling in. He probably wouldn’t have liked it even if he weren’t in a funk. He’s a simple Irish lad who can’t give a shit about a vial of the true blood of Christ. He was just trying to better himself in a new line of work, and now this happens … And what happened? Well, he starts his really, really bad day by gunning down a priest in the confessional, just as he has confessed that he has been paid to do the hit on the priest. The holy man staggers into the church, Ray still filling him full of lead from behind, but one of the bullets passes through the priest and then the head of a little boy kneeling at the altar.
(Back up for just a minute, read those last two sentences. Have you ever come across a situation where so many cardinal sins have been committed in such a short space of time? Most of them by one bullet? Let me get this straight: He fires into the confessional booth, during the holy rite itself. He murders the priest in the church. For money. He kills the little boy, an innocent bystander! While he is at his prayers, doing his penance! (“Try to do better at maths,” is one of the poignant goals expressed on the blood-stained paper in the kid’s hands.) To improve on that score of sins you’d have had to have the Pope standing between the priest and the boy, and the bullet kills all three, and then Ray would have to take a crap in the baptismal font and piss in the holy water on the way out.)
Okay, enough black levity from me. Black humor is what this movie is all about, and it’s very good at it. It also manages to convey a real sense of Ray’s suicidal remorse. All through the story some demented Irish criminal sense of morals dictate the action, and leads to some scenes that are so funny you want to cry. Because the reason Ken is in Bruges, of course, is to kill his friend Ray for being such a spectacular fuckup. Because killing kids is right out, even to the vicious psychopathic family man Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes).
This all comes together quite nicely as one of those films that is continually startling you with good, though occasionally insane, writing, and top-notch acting, and a plot that turns you around every ten minutes. You might be reminded of some of the goofier dialogue in Pulp Fiction, before Tarantino apparently decided to devote himself entirely to bad drive-in movie and Hong Kong chopsocky ripoffs. Plus, whatever that low-brow Ray thinks, Bruges looks like a place I could spend a few weeks in.