Laying Low, Regrets And All



Writer-director Martin McDonagh takes what had become a trope by the mid-aughts, the chatty hit man, and greets it with such humanity and love that you almost don’t realize it’s one of the most violent movies you’ve seen in a bit. The movie’s fixated on history, as it is set in one of the oldest intact medieval cities in Europe, and wallows in that aspect of its setting from the opposing sensibilities of its two leads: Ken (Brendan Gleeson), all eager to soak in the touristy trappings, and Ray (Colin Farrell), a fidgety maestro of deflection and boredom, keen to dodge the mandate to stay put for two weeks awaiting orders from the boss back in London. 

Ken, older and wiser, and in keeping with the historical theme, is looking back at himself, the seasoned pro whose status as hired man doesn’t align with his obvious self-possession and gravitas, while Ray, besieged by the memory of a recent accidental slaying of a young boy caught in the crossfire of a hit gone sideways, cannot escape history fast enough. They’re mirror images, old and young, professional and upstart, father and son, and they flit about this hushed realm of centuries-old buildings and bric-a-brac, working out their inner demons against a looming desire-dread for their boss’s call. When the boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), finally does call, his orders bring the two killers into a hesitant crucible of loyalty and duty – but only Ken knows it…

The cliche is that a movie in this sort of setting would make that setting “another character” – but this one truly does. There’s a quiet lull so often in the proceedings that in another writer-director’s hands might inspire the fast forward button, but here feels like the urging of some ancient impulse emanating from the Bruges town center itself, as if to disturb the ranging contemplations inherent in the very walls surrounding the story would be tantamount to unraveling it. The movie is thoughtful but not in a prim or elitist way, but in a way that allows the actors to mull and remember and conjecture and build escape plans, all from behind their eyes. 

Where the dialogue comes in – and McDonagh, primarily a playwright, is a master of the element – it’s to move the emotions around, and in necessary spots, the plot. Mostly we’re all ears when these two speak. But it’s not a Tarantino kind of snark or pop-culture reconnaissance mission, it’s almost always an insight into the troubles motivating them, that which brings us to the heart of their pat violence. And yet it’s still funny, perhaps from its sheer honesty, but certainly from the familiar connection that can only mean these two actors know each other. They scarcely need dialogue for each other to understand the next play. Farrell’s eyebrows alone, forever angled like an open drawbridge, communicate such a deep, disturbed psyche, yet balanced over rat-scared eyes and a mouth that unfurls threats that ultimately betray his fear – of hell, of banishment, of loneliness, while Gleeson’s pudge-scowl subtly modulates between paternal understanding and cold, murderous determination, all from stock-still meekness. 

There’s a meta feedback loop on the fringe of the first half, involving a small independent film crew shooting an art film in the middle of the city. McDonagh’s leaned on the trope a few times, once in his play The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996), again in his followup film to this, Seven Psychopaths (2012), but here it’s a pulse of static in the middle of this real-world heave of pain and regret, coming at us inside that lulled, town-center wave of thoughtfulness so that the cheekiness of the self-reflexiveness feels rightfully intertwined with the guys’ (or really Ray’s) devastating need for escape – and then as the story winds around itself in the second half, it’s the actor in the film-within-the-film that triggers the ultimate, and bloodiest, turnabout in the story. These hit men need the counsel of fiction to negotiate all that self-immolating brutality. 

Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray is worth the 4K upgrade (approved by cinematographer Eigil Bryld) if only to show off those beautiful Bruges locations, each included to support the story, rather than as rank travelogue – the crisp but muted colors are often shot night for night, the better to cull the ancient bleakness still somehow coating the constricting edifice of the city. The disc has plentiful extras, each ancient in their own way, appearing here and there in other issues going back almost as far as the movie itself – several behind the scenes featurettes, a gag reel, the usual. They enhance, as they surely always did, the tracks of thought that led McDonagh and team to create what might just be the last very well-written word on brooding killers and their human need for love and closure, if not a little time off to contemplate friendship and fate. 

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