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In Bruges movie anniversary retrospective review
Image: Focus Features

Film

15 Years of In Bruges: Hitmen, Guilt, and Inanimate Objects 

Nowhere did director Martin McDonagh better manage dark comedy than in his debut film In Bruges. In the longtime playwright’s first movie, he built a film around the often vulgar banter of a pair of hitmen, like Quentin Tarantino, and fused violence with a great deal of Catholic imagery, as Martin Scorsese has been doing since the 1970s. 

But from the combination emerged a new and vital cinematic voice. Few films this century have so expertly balanced humor and darkness as In Bruges, which arrived in theaters 15 years ago this month. 

Also, the film does a great job showcasing Bruges, a not-especially-traditional film location, and I know more than one person who has been inspired by the movie to visit there. 

In Bruges
Image: Focus Features

As the film begins, Ray and Ken (Farrell and Gleeson) are a pair of hitmen who are in exile from London in the Belgian town of Bruges, awaiting instructions for what to do next. We learn that then-novice hitman Ray, in the course of committing a murder on behalf of their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), had accidentally shot and killed a child, and the two men have fled for that reason. That the guy they’re killing is a priest — played in a single scene by Ciaran Hinds — is sort of glossed over. 

Just as they would in another McDonagh film, last year’s The Banshees of Inisherin, Gleeson and Farrell spend much of the film bickering with one another. No fingers are cut off, but the film does contain its share of shocking violence. 

Once they arrive, Ray is surly, depressed, and would rather be just about anywhere else, while Ken is into the sight-seeing. Ray perks up a bit when he sees that a movie is being filmed in town and takes an interest in a local woman (Clémence Poésy) whose backstory is almost as shocking as his. 

And the film is never shy about making Ray, in particular, look like a horrible man. He uses abusive language. He punches a woman in the face.   He says just about the most hurtful thing possible to a family of American tourists: 

Eventually, we learn what the real purpose of the visit to Bruges was, and then, about halfway through, Ralph Fiennes charges into the movie like a locomotive. We had earlier heard crime boss Harry’s voice on the phone up to that point, but once Fiennes arrives on screen, he’s a ball of profane fire, including in the film’s most famous line:

“I’m sorry for calling you an inanimate object,” Fiennes says in the following scene, likely the only time a movie has featured that particular combination of words. 

In Bruges
Image: Focus Features

The film ends with a perfect occurrence, which provides something that looks a bit like earned redemption. 

A Sundance premiere in early 2008, In Bruges only made $7.8 million at the U.S. box office, but it did better overseas and even better with critics. Its reputation has grown over time, however. 

Since then, while continuing his busy theater career, McDonagh has made Seven Psychopaths, which was entertaining but not much remembered; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Mo., which collected Oscar nominations but is often disavowed with Crash-like precision; and The Banshees of Inisherin, which reunited the In Bruges gang in one of 2022’s most acclaimed films. 

In Bruges remains about even with Three Billboards as McDonagh’s best films, a truly inspired tale that manages to poll laughs when they’re least expected. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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