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Irish Un-American

playwright's debut feature loathes the u.s. while "borrowing" from its movies


CHARM CITY: Colin Farrell (Left) and Brendan Gleeson Odd-Couple It in Belgium.

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 2/13/2008

Americans are fat. Americans are slovenly, Americans are rude, and Americans are certainly not reasonable, practical, or authentic. They're also not the bloody Belgians, with their twee little cathedrals and tranquil public squares and irritating insistence on civility and serenity. No, the best thing in the world is to be Irish, soaked in beer, drenched in blood, racked with guilt, and grousing through life like a preteen, a permanent scowl etched with miserable integrity on your ever-so-principled face.

These are the lessons distilled from the infuriating and disappointing In Bruges, the first feature-length movie from cult Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, whose collected oeuvre includes enough fake blood to make Lady Macbeth wish she owned a fire hose. There's plenty of gore this time around, but that's for the second act. Right now there's two Irish hit men, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), hiding out in the very unexciting Belgian city of Bruges on orders from their boss after completing a job back home. Wait for my call, their unseen boss insists, and so in between room-service meals and long stretches loitering by the phone, Ken drags Ray along to one Hieronymus Bosch altarpiece after another, hoping to edify his uncultured partner while Ray rolls his eyes so skyward in discontent he looks like he's feigning epilepsy.

Slowly, it's revealed that Ray fears boredom because he's retreating from the inescapable ache of a guilty conscience. Back in Ireland, their hit went wrong-unforgivably, horribly wrong. Why should they be on holiday when they've caused tremendous suffering for innocent people? And come to think of it, why has their boss sent them here, to a four-star hotel in another country, just to hide out? It's as though he's got another job for them to do while they're here . . .

Which brings us to the Americans. Bruges is lousy with them, stomping their hydrogenated bulks through narrow European streets like water buffalo glutted on high-fructose corn syrup. They wrinkle their noses sourly at the slightest whiff of cigarette smoke and screech like thwarted brats when you dare mention their foreign policy mistakes. When Ray takes a woman to dinner and the Americans at the next table over grumble to each other how his date is blowing smoke right at them, we're supposed to cheer how Ray yells something about Vietnam and Mark David Chapman, cold cocks the man, and knees the woman in the gut. Hey, she had a bottle in her hand. Didn't we just hear the philosophical discussion Ray and Ken had about whether a bottle is a deadly weapon? So we should laugh it off, ha ha. Besides, they were Americans, they had it coming-except a few scenes later, a gendarme fingers Ray for assault on two Canadians at a restaurant. Canadians? Oh, so they didn't deserve a public throttling for voicing an opinion in a private conversation after all. Boy, is my face red.

What's most galling about In Bruges' pathological anti-Americanism isn't a few-OK, more than a few-jibes at our expense, but that the movie won't acknowledge how relentlessly all its tropes, tricks, and flourishes are shoplifted from American drama. Are we meant to believe that McDonagh has borrowed the fuck-a-fuck-a-fuck rhythms of the character's speech from that great Irish playwright David Mamet? That he's absorbed the random violence and chatty profundities of that son of Dublin Quentin Tarantino? He's practically fellating the tradition of fetishizing cinematic gunplay to a balletic, surreal fever pitch, complete with the spurting carnage and ejaculating squibs of great Emerald Isle directors such as McPeckinpah and O'Scorsese. It's one thing to complain about your host's cooking-just make sure you don't have a mouthful when you do.

There's a vast difference between bigoted characters and a bigoted movie. Bigoted characters trust the audience enough to uncloak their shortcomings. Bigoted movies, on the other hand, are like being cornered at the bar by a drunk racist. No matter what you learn about the human condition from being around him, you're not enriched by his company. Somewhere inside In Bruges is a real drama, with humor and pathos and something unique and unborrowed at its core. But it's already had one beer too many, and it's a mean drunk. Check, please.

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