Comedy and tragedy – they’re the dual extremes of human emotion and the necessary ingredients for pretty much every major work of art, literature and film in the Western canon. They also happen to be at the heart of how director Martin McDonagh approaches his life, not to mention his art.
“The way I see the world in lots of ways, it’s kind of naturally bleak and naturally funny,” McDonagh said.
McDonagh, who just directed the soon-to-be cult classic “In Bruges,” recently spoke with Artsweek via a conference call, in which he and “In Bruges” star Colin Farrell weighed in about making the movie.
“In Bruges” follows two hit men – the rowdy, young upstart Ray (Farrell) and the cultured aesthete Ken (Brendan Gleeson) – as they spend a weekend in the picturesque Belgian town of Bruges, escaping London city life and the consequences of what is revealed to be a particularly gristly accident that occurred during their last job. The film, which seems to specialize in seamless transitioning from laugh-out-loud comedy to cry-in-your-whiskey tragedy, doesn’t just take place in Bruges, it relies on Bruges as a sort of third protagonist to support its plot. And, as such, the medieval streets of the city become a sort of fairy-tale backdrop for a film that ends up dealing with issues that are all too real.
In fact, McDonagh said he was inspired to write the film following his own weekend getaway in the titular town, in which he was simultaneously struck by the city’s beauty and bored to tears by its lack of entertainment.
“I went there for a little weekend break from London and was struck by how cinematic … the place was,” McDonagh said. “I asked myself … why would two guys who hated a place that was so beautiful be there?”
“It’s a beautiful city,” Farrell said of filming in Bruges. “And I’ll never be going back now.”
Ultimately though, as beautiful as the city of Bruges is, it is the interplay between the two characters that makes the film so incredible. Throughout their explorations of the city’s sights, the men match the film’s visual energy with an emotional intensity, a combination that ultimately makes for a lush and compelling film that is as visually arresting as it is emotionally engaging.
Whether dealing with the tragedy that is the film’s narrative center or engaging in a bit of buddy comedy, Gleeson turns in a performance that is the definition of the straight man, as steadfast as it is strong. Meanwhile, Farrell manages to accomplish an almost impossible task – taking a character that would be very easy to hate and making him not only human, but heartbreakingly empathetic. In fact, the sheer humanity with which Gleeson and Farrell imbue their performances is almost entirely responsible for making a film that admittedly verges very close to the absurdist side of storytelling incredibly relevant and resonant to real-world audiences.
Because of this, as much enjoyment of the film relies on one’s penchant for plotlines that involve such things as racism, cocaine-snorting, prostitute-procuring midgets, ridiculous robberies gone awry and a dry-witted hit man played to pitch-perfect perfection by Ralph Fiennes, the movie also speaks to something more than mere satire, thanks to its ability to juggle the absurd and the all too real.
“I know the film’s not very PC, and lots of it is odd,” McDonagh said. “But I’ve always loved that.”
In fact, Farrell said it was his love of the story that originally drew him to the film.
“Bottom line is, I’ve never come across something that’s so unusual and so unique, and there was an amazing balance between comedy and absolute despair,” Farrell said. “It was just really deep without being indulgent.”
Indeed, it is the film’s ability to be deep without being too self-consciously so, balance the bleakness of McDonagh’s vision with the lighter side of life and make the absurd accessible that make it so interesting. It is the movie’s utter unusualness and the fact that every scene is so far from what you would expect based on the scene before it that make the movie so intriguing. Ultimately, after speaking with McDonagh and Farrell, one thing is clear – “In Bruges” is everything they wanted it to be, which is to say, it is nothing like any movie made before it. And that makes “In Bruges” the perfect place for film buffs to be this February.