The Black Comedy of Masculinity | Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges Turns 10

Martin McDonagh and Colin Farrell have come a long way since the release of In Bruges back in 2008. The low-budget black comedy, about two hitmen shipped to the Belgian city after a murder gone wrong, signalled a new phase in the careers of both its London-Irish director and leading Irish star. For McDonagh, In Bruges marked the acclaimed playwright’s entrance into feature-length film writing and directing, building from the earlier Academy success of the short Six Shooter in 2004. Fast-forward to the present and he is now on track for Oscar glory with the fierce tragicomedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The trajectory of Farrell’s acting career over the past decade meanwhile has been nothing short of miraculous. One need only recall his spectacular miscasting as a bleached blonde Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone’s 2004 blockbuster flop to judge the depths to which his acting credentials had slumped by this period. Sporting a tunic as thinly veiled as his Castleknock accent, Farrell was bizarrely joined in Alexander by just about every out of work Irish actor at the time. Who could ever forget the surrealism of Mick Lally as a Macedonian horse seller?

Farrell, in a recent interview in The New York Times, frankly admitted that he was in these years “due a kick in the arse”. Enter McDonagh and In Bruges in 2008. Under the guidance of the writer and director, Farrell exchanged his novelty dagger for a rapier sharp script that revived the raw volatile energy of the Dubliner’s earlier breakthrough performances in films such as Tigerland (2000) and Intermission (2003) .  

Farrell has subsequently succeeded in breaking the generic action man mould that had once threatened to determine him as an actor. Following on from the indie spirit of In Bruges, he has more recently made the great leap into art house territory with lauded offbeat roles in The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017).

But what of In Bruges itself? Has the cult classic fared as well as its leading stars in the decade since its release? Sitting down to watch it again, the immediate comedy provided by film’s eponymous setting remains as entertaining as ever. In the opening scenes, the camera fawns over the architectural grandeur of Belgium’s most pristinely preserved medieval city. Night shots of misty lamp lit alcoves, cobbled bridges and canal ways cast the city in an otherworldly atmosphere.

London-based hitmen Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent to hide out in this most picturesque of places after a botched murder that resulted in rookie Ray accidently killing a young boy. What makes their mere presence in Bruges so entertaining is the extent to which the idyllic surrounds not only fail to impress the younger Ray, but actually provoke his outright hostility at every turn.  Bruges is a shithole,” he abruptly declares to Ken as they step off the train. Desperate to distract himself from his guilt-ridden conscience, Ray is disgusted by Bruges’ lack of excitement and the city hilariously becomes the victim of his incessant abuse.   

Even when the characters do look to take in the sights of the city, their appreciation is brilliantly warped by the film’s black comedic lens. Ken, Ray’s older authoritative partner in crime, is, for example, determined to make the most of their visit when they first arrive. McDonagh clearly revels in the ridiculousness of this hardened murderer playing the breezy tourist with pop-up map in hand, enthusiastically pointing out to Ray the passing sight of a restored hospital from the 1100s as they take a morning canal ride together.

Later, caustic mob boss Harry (an electric Ralph Fiennes) is involved in a similarly comic exchange when he reveals to Ken his nostalgic reasons for sending the two hitmen to the Belgian city. Harry proceeds to recount in his venomous cockney drawl the cherished childhood memory of a family trip – “the best fucking holiday I ever had” – when he went to this “fairy-tale place” and was entranced “by the swans and canals and that.”

As a setting, of course, Bruges crucially fixes the narrative within a locale small enough for McDonagh’s fractious characters to keep bumping into one another. The city’s main square becomes in this way like a theatre stage, ensuring that the chaotic action sequence that brings the film to its grizzly culmination avoids feeling forced or contrived.

In Bruges is amongst other things a film about men and the rigid codes that bind them together. McDonagh’s work as both a playwright and film director has always been preoccupied with the theme of masculinity in society. His early stage trilogies probed the distorting social influence of prescribed gender roles and expectations. Even as a comedy, In Bruges does offer a potential space for the meaningful exploration of these themes, with the brutal conditions of the crime world testing the hardened masculine resolves of Ray, Ken and Harry each in different ways.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In Bruges, released 10 years ago today. - HeadStuff.org
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In Bruges, released 10 years ago today. Source

Many of the biggest laughs in the film though inevitably indulge the more superficial end of this spectrum. The inability of McDonagh’s trio of hard men to adequately deal with their escalating emotions repeatedly results in wildly entertaining violent outbursts. Harry turns his blind rage on the “inanimate fucking object” of a desk telephone when things start going wrong. Not all of In Bruges’ comically blunt assertions of masculinity have aged quite as well in the decade since its release. Ray’s childish impetuosity sees him repeatedly resort to the pejorative use of “gay” in conversation with Ken’s choice of a fancy bottle of Belgian lager, for example, immediately dismissed as a “gay beer.”

This reflex does in one sense perfectly reflect the rigid macho sensibility of the young hitman. However, when watching In Bruges again I couldn’t help but feel that McDonagh’s comedic dialogue too often lazily relies on the superficial repetition of such insults, with “gay” repeatedly joined by “midget” and “retarded” to bulk up the quick laughs throughout.

These minor gripes do not however resign In Bruges to Ray’s description of purgatory as “kind of like the inbetweeny one: You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham.” The film still remains a cracking watch 10 years on.


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