Dear In Bruges,
When a movie gets called a ‘travelogue’ it’s usually as a sort of backhanded compliment. It’s a means of proving a movie’s worth as a look into a way of life or a place that many viewers would not otherwise be privy to, while subtly skirting the fact that it does not have much else going on. A travelogue movie will often rely too much on the exotic or novel locations it explores, and neglect simple storytelling. Characters and plot will be substituted with fawning shots of old buildings and quaint natives.
So as much as I would like to say you function as a travelogue for your titular city, Bruges, I feel as though I must refrain from doing so, as it might serve only to undersell you to those who are still undecided about your quality. While you do any excellent job of fleshing out your medieval city of a setting, you also create a set of lively and unique charatcers while telling a touching and darkly funny yet deeply affecting morality tale. You’re a rare movie in that your comedy comes from a dark place, yet never makes light of the darkness, and you never let your humor undercut the emotional beats of the story.
You begin with a classic mismatched-buddy movie setup. Two hitmen – a good natured veteran and a moody novice – are ordered by their boss to leave the England and hide out while the heat dies down following a botched job in London. And where are they asked to go in order to cool their heels? Bruges.And where is Bruges? It’s in Belgium.
Much of your comedy comes from the simple facts stated above. Bruges, it turns out, is one of the best preserved medieval cities in the whole of Europe – a distinction which instantly turns Ken, the elder hitman, into a glowing tourist. He recites facts and histories related to the city with the energies of a parent trying to engage their child in a museum. The younger hitman, Ray, meanwhile, earns his title of “the worst tourist in the whole world” by pouting, complaining, and generally acting like a disinterested child. The early-on interplay between these two men allows for some easy and relatable laughs, which become a bit more complicated when the extent of their failure in London – and by extension Ray’s moodiness – is explained.
Here your story and your actors truly come together in order to create a unique piece of cinema. The restless, childlike impatience of Ray suddenly becomes more than just a character flaw, and allows the character a level of empathy and depth that most other movies would not bother attempting to create. Even though he is a hitman, we can still relate to him and his feelings regarding the botched hit, and by the end we genuinely want him to overcome his tumultuous inner struggles.
Ken likewise turns from a goofy, over ernest foil to Ray’s petulance and becomes a fatherly guardian and protector. He is never afraid to set Ray straight, and yet is also not afraid to join in a bit of drinking and cocaine snorting with his young compatriot. He recognizes the potential for change and salvation in his protege, and does his best to connect with him in a meaningful and progressive way. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell were inspired choices for these roles, as each brings in the audiences preconceptions regarding them as actors, and uses that to their advantage in both setting up and subverting their characters.
The further comedic and whimsical touches that you lend to this story also help to create a tale that one cannot help but want to return to again and again. There is Chloe, the sweet looking Belgium girl who sells drugs to film crews, including the midget – excuse me, dwarf – starring in the movie being filled in Bruges at the time. There is also Harry, Ray and Ken’s ill-tempered and endlessly vulgar boss, as well as Yuri, the arms dealer who is unnaturally interested in alcoves. These are just a few of the characters peppered throughout your story that give it a layer of comedic reality that allows even the most dire and intense of circumstances to retain a slight touch of mischeif.
As a travelogue, you succeed brilliantly. By your end I felt as though I had been to Bruges and back. However, unlike most movies for whom that would be the only compliment you have so much more to offer; clever, interesting characters, a story of redemption, and the kind of dark, policially incorrect human that is woefully underused even more rarely effective. I may never get the chance to visit Bruges in person, but I will definitely make it a point to visit you again and again.
Wishing you were here,
Brian J. Roan