Martin McDonagh's background as a celebrated playwright helps explain why his feature writing-directing project, In Bruges, unfolds the way it does, in a dialogue-heavy, unrushed series of reveals that take the story through several distinct acts. It doesn't, however, explain McDonagh's talent for striking visuals, or his talent for balancing whip-crack comedy with expansive character exploration. It would have been hard to botch the direction of a script this sparky and smart, but it must have been even harder to direct it this well.
After a London assassination job gone wrong, Irish hit men Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are ordered to the quaint Flemish town of Bruges to hide out until the heat dies down. From the start, Farrell is twitchy and frustrated in such a small, non-happening place; as Gleeson placidly enjoys the sights on offer in the best-preserved medieval town in Belgium, Farrell drinks and bitches and babbles nervously, at least until he runs across pretty Clémence Poésy (and irascible dwarf Jordan Prentice) on a movie set, and starts coming up with his own distractions. Initially, In Bruges looks like a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy, all nervy, lively dialogue and punchlines about small towns and fat American tourists. Then it starts sprawling outward kaleidoscopically, with each new twist taking the story in a new direction. Sometimes it's shockingly poignant and touching; at other times, it's a gripping crime drama; then it veers back to comedy. If Guy Ritchie sat down, took a couple of deep, cleansing breaths, and put as much thought as energy and style into his films, they'd look almost exactly like this.
Much as with a Ritchie film, part of the fun is in the way the twists improbably bring everything together at the end, and the rest is in the performances. Farrell, having successfully made the transition from overexposed-yet-underutilized action-thriller star to one-film-a-year artiste, gets a lot to work with, and he sells it all flawlessly, moving convincingly from offhanded, prickly asshole mode to nervous young lover to disintegrating martyr. Then again, all the leads are perfectly cast, and they help turn a light farce with thriller overtones into something deeper and sweeter. The working-class Irish accents, grubby aesthetic, and surreal, dreamlike interludes inevitably recall Neil Jordan's early work, but In Bruges resembles films like The Crying Game for larger reasons: When it's funny, it's hilarious; when it's serious, it's powerful; and either way, it's an endless pleasant surprise.