x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

In Bruges

Martin McDonagh is a master of the violent, live-wire three-act which uproots its characters' lineages and trajectories with brilliant arrangements of the macabre with the tragicomic.

Beckett and call: Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell take their Endgame to Bruges.
Beckett and call: Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell take their Endgame to Bruges.

There's a special kick that comes with finding a fresh voice in mainstream cinema. So step up, Martin McDonagh, and take your bows. You will find few playwright-cum-writer-directors around who can touch McDonagh - a true genre-straddling visionary - try as the LaButes and Mamets of this world might.

McDonagh's first feature-length film is a twisty (and twisted) pleasure, far more sophisticated than its British gangster movie billing would have you believe. Two Irish hit men, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), straight from a job, are sent to Belgium, told to lie low and await further instructions. In limbo, they tour the cobbled streets of what Ken calls Europe's "best-preserved medieval city" and Ray, well, let's just say his appraisal of the place is less aesthetically astute. Though a chance meeting with duplicitous love interest Chloë (up-and-comer Clémence Poésy) does seem to lift his spirits.

Here, we meet the first of the film's many carefully laid plot points, which, in turn, lead to the coda of carnage. As anticipated, the assassins' employer, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), until now just a menacing voice on the phone, finally enters the picture brandishing a gun and an endgame plan. Bodies are split open and heads roll. Ray and Ken ponder the predicament of guilt. The ending is more art-house than grindhouse. It's as if Samuel Beckett had found his way onto the set of The Belgian Job.

McDonagh - already an Oscar-winner for his short film debut Six Shooter - would be perfectly justified in possessing as much of a swagger about him as his work does. With his directorial one-two punch, he has proven to be as inimitable a talent behind the camera as he is backstage at London's National or Royal Court theatres. An accomplished and acclaimed dramatist with plays including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman (even if you don't take to this DVD, I urge you to track down Faber's edition of the latter play), McDonagh is already a master of the violent, live-wire three-act which uproots its characters' lineages and trajectories with snatches of cruel humour and brilliant arrangements of the macabre with the tragicomic. He has said that his inspirations include Scorsese and Tarantino - and, indeed, he takes from them an over-fondness for the cutaway shot.

So why does In Bruges announce McDonagh as a fresh voice? Well, there's a real sense of thorough plotting and symmetrical artisanship in every meticulous dialogue duet. As conversations click from daily discussions to talk of disturbing deeds, an intense, driving beat underscores it all - and Farrell and Gleeson are impeccable at sustaining the momentum. McDonagh allows his actors more than just breathing space between line readings - though that would have been change enough in this age of edit-happy crosscutting.

But no, in Bruges there exists the time and the liberty to imply backstories and build characters. And with this comes the freedom to set in motion those aforementioned best-laid plans. Every incidental scene or seemingly throwaway line is now in place. We are ready to connect the dots, and do so just in the nick of time, which actually makes us feel quite clever. Case in point: a chase takes place along back alleys and footbridges of the city and through the set of a film in production, recalling earlier quotations of Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now and a Hieronymus Bosch painting. It is not so much a scene, as it is a gold star to the most conversant viewers. It seems that coming from an older medium - that of theatre - McDonagh wants to bypass film's modernism altogether. And if he can't do it entirely on his own, he's taken a mighty fine shot at it.

I should admit that I had mixed feelings about In Bruges right after seeing it on its theatrical run. And it's certainly not to everyone's taste. But the most remarkable pictures never are - and it has ripened incredibly well. The three Golden Globe nominations it garnered last week are testament enough to this. It seems that you can pull no punches and pull through after all.