Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In Bruges: Goofy or Grotesque?

So Colin Farrell won best actor for In Bruges. I had predicted as much. Or at least that his inky, expressive eyebrows' performance alone in this movie was Oscar-worthy. I’m happy for my compatriot, Colin, and disappointed for my other fellow compatriot, Brendan Gleeson. Mr. Gleeson, a fine actor, has never gotten the recognition he deserves.

I didn’t watch the Golden Globes (it’s a choice between TV or writing for me and masochist that I am I prefer to show up for my writing), but have it on good authority that Colin’s acceptance speech was cringeable (yes I can make up words, that’s the beauty of a blog.) But best actor for a comedy, really?

In Bruges centers on Ray (Brendan Gleeson) and Ken (Colin Farrell), two quirky, witty, Irish hit men. When Ken botches his first contract-murder in London, he and Ray are ordered by their crime boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to flee England. Harry sends them to the medieval city of Bruges, Belgium. There, they are to lie low and await his further instruction.

For those who haven’t yet seen the movie, I won’t give too much away, but suffice to say that I felt shocked by the nature of the botched murder hit. Once that part of the plot is revealed, the movie begins in earnest, entering the black, absurdist comedy genre of such highly acclaimed movies as Snatch, Pulp Fiction, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. With every plot twist, In Bruges dives deeper into the macabre: foul language, drug and alcohol abuse, savage violence, and inhuman cruelty don’t give these characters too much pause.

In Bruges gave me pause. I’d go so far as to say the movie disturbed me. These characters are having way too much fun doing the unthinkable. There’s a numbing coupling of humor and savage violence in this movie that concerns me. What does it say about human nature that all too many of us find the graphic violence and inhumanity depicted in this movie to be funny and entertaining? Even glamorous and glorified? How deadened have we gotten as a people?

Yet In Bruges has continued to stay with me months after I first saw it. How can that be? How can a movie about several heinous, murderous characters (Ray, Ken, and Harry in particular) have had such an impact? How can I feel sympathy for these deplorable characters? While watching, I even went so far as to root for Ken and Ray, hoping that they’d escape consequences for their crimes and thrive in the world? Perhaps that’s part of this movie’s genius.
Martin McDonagh wrote and directed In Bruges. His brilliance here, admittedly, is that he managed to portray very human, deeply flawed, and despicable characters with several redeemable qualities. Amazingly, these characters are all somehow sympathetic. The main characters feel love and pity for each other, and we in turn feel pity for them. Ray has a love of books, history, and culture, of his murdered wife and Ken. Ken likewise loves Ray like a father, is haunted by his slaying of an innocent, and worries he’s not good enough to win over his love interest, ChloĆ«, or even to live.

These main characters have their own value systems and set of moral codes--however skewed--and are driven to right wrongs. Ray in particular believes in Ken’s ability to change and to redeem himself. He believes in Ken’s worth, that he can somehow make good on an unconscionable crime and give back to humanity. I’m not so sure. But still, incredibly, Mr. McDonagh makes me root for Ken right up to the movie’s end.

Again, I think both Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell have done the best work of their careers in this movie. But honestly I’m not so concerned with either actor or Mr. McDonagh. I’m far more focused on you and me, the everyday audiences that these movies are written for. Mr. McDonagh, and all too many gifted writers like him, seems to believe that to entertain us there’s got to be the full spectacle of gratuitous sex, death, inhumanity, and graphic violence paraded across the screen. Is that true? I’d like to think not. Frankly, I’d like to believe that the majority of us are far more humane than that.

I love that this movie is imaginative and strange, that it made me think and feel deeply. However, I believe that really great stories, in movie form or otherwise, have to be more than gory, shocking, and peppered with clever dialogue. There’s got to be a healthier, more powerful way to provide meaningful and provocative works. Works that make us think, feel, and react. Works that might even change us for the better. The alternative—that stories have to shock us in the most graphic, primal ways or they won’t hold our attention--is just too depressing.

Why compared to this stuff, my work reads Mary Poppinish!

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