Tuesday, March 17, 2015

“In Bruges”: On St. Patrick’s Day, Here’s Blood in Your Eye

 Well, no, I’m not Irish, not even a wee bit. But Ireland seems to keep cropping into my thoughts. I’ve played Irish characters in long-ago school plays. My favorite authors include James Joyce and (more recently) Colm Tóibín. One of my favorite recent vacations was a trip to the Emerald Isle.

 Even my moviegoing experiences are starting to take on an Irish coloration. Years ago, I fell for a glorious little indie, Waking Ned Devine, which was full of  wild Irish deviltry and a dollop of black humor. (Who can forget the late David Kelly as the naked old man on the motorcycle?) I’m also a fan of Dublin-born Jim Sheridan’s emotional take on the Irish Diaspora, In America. Last summer I was captivated by a somber drama about an Irish priest facing his own mortality. Calvary, which starred Brendan Gleeson, was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, who has also shown he can be funny in The Guard, pairing Gleeson with Don Cheadle as a very mismatched pair of law-enforcement types. (Call it Ireland’s offbeat answer to Lethal Weapon.)

But on this St. Patrick’s Day I’m here to talk about John Michael McDonagh’s kid brother, Martin. Born in 1970, Martin McDonagh is today considered one of Ireland’s most important playwrights. I don’t know all of McDonagh’s stage work, which includes such award-winners as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman. I did, though, see The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which starts out like many another rural Irish gabfest, complete with fiddle music and a cozy cottage set, but ends with one of the most startling conclusions I’ve ever witnessed in a theatre. Suffice it to say that if you’ve experienced The Lieutenant of Inishmore, you won’t soon forget it.

Even while winning acclaim for his theatre work, Martin McDonagh has been obsessed with film. It’s been said that he counts among his biggest artistic influences such cinema greats as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Quentin Tarantino. No surprise: he too leans toward projects that blend comedy and cruelty, and he too has a fascination with bloodshed.  In 2004, McDonagh, wrote, produced, and directed Six Shooter, a morose tale that won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. This success led to the opportunity to make In Bruges in 2008 for Focus Features.

In Bruges is set in a Belgian city known for its pristine medieval architecture. It was filmed on location to take advantage of the local splendor, but In Bruges is not the best possible advertisement for tourism. Within the film, there is sinister activity at every turn: robbery, drug-dealing, assault, even murder. At its core is yet another odd couple, two hitmen laying low after a bungled job in England. Both are Irish-born, but as played by Colin Farrell and the inevitable Brendan Gleeson they are as different as can be. Gleeson’s Ken is stolid, philosophical, resigned. He’s charmed by Bruges. Farrell’s Ray, by contrast, is twitchy, given to emotional outbursts. He hates Bruges. In fact, at one point he concludes, “Maybe that's what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in fucking Bruges.”

 There’s one more key character, played by Ralph Fiennes as a brutal crime boss with an unexpected moral code. Throughout we feel the sort of sardonic sentimentality of which the Irish are somehow capable. 

I don’t know if In Bruges has traveled to the Middle East, but McDonagh’s stage work is surprisingly popular in Iran’s capital. I wonder how they celebrate St. Pat’s in Tehran. By donning a kelly-green chador, maybe?  

Erin go Bragh!