There is usually an argument on the internet around this time of year over whether Die Hard is a Christmas film or not. I won’t be touching that argument in any great detail; besides, I’ve already made my view on it perfectly clear (it is a Christmas film). What I want to do is start a whole new ‘is it a Christmas film’? conundrum with this film.
You may recall that a few years ago, my film of the year was an incredible drama called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This film was written and directed by Irish playwright/filmmaker Martin McDonagh. He is better known for his plays, but between this film and Three Billboards, he has a strong claim to being one of the worlds most underrated directors.
In Bruges sees two hitmen, Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, respectively) lying low in the city of Bruges after an assassination attempt goes horribly wrong, awaiting instructions from their ruthless boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) the two take in the sights of the city, much to the chagrin of Ray.
The terms I’ve used to describe my previous few reviews were: ‘Christmas cheer’ or ‘Christmas magic’ will come nowhere near this film, which is as far from cheery as it is possible to get. It’s a pitch-black comedy with a fair amount of tragedy thrown into the mix for good measure.
I was recommended this film by my frequent correspondent, Ian, who frequently sends me films to review (thanks again Ian) on the basis that it was a very different kind of Christmas film, and he was adamant that it should be classified as such; and while there aren’t any hard-and-fast guidelines for what does and doesn’t qualify, I think there is a difference between ‘Christmas films’ and ‘films that take place at Christmas’.
I feel this needs to be clarified before I discuss the virtues of In Bruges, of which there are many because it’s an argument that seems to go around and around with no clear endpoint, and I feel like this is a perfect example to use when discussing the differences, more so than Die Hard, even.
My own personal classification for a bonafide ‘Christmas film’ is any film in which Christmas is a part of the story. Not only does it have to be set at or around Christmas, but there must be Christmassy elements to it as well. Under this rule, Die Hard easily qualifies (it’s the story of a man wanting to get home to his family for Christmas before the whole ‘terrorist’ thing) as does the obvious customers like Home Alone (family going on vacation for Christmas, conveniently forget their most annoying child) or The Grinch (someone with visible differences is treated differently at Christmas, and therefore blames the holiday as well as the people).
I would stress that simply taking place at Christmas is not enough – in my eyes at least – to qualify. Iron Man 3, for instance, takes place partially around Christmas, but you’d be hard-pressed to justify that it is a ‘Christmas film’. If you took out the festive parts, the story would still be the same, whereas true-blue seasonal films wouldn’t work without the festive parts.
Then we come to anomalies like this film. To Ian, my aforementioned movie dealer, this is a Christmas film. I, however, am unconvinced.
Yes, it takes place around Christmastime, in a tourist city renowned for its Christmas markets, and yes, there are a few lines regarding ‘Christmas presents that will never be opened’. But honestly, you could move the story into January and it would still make sense. The season doesn’t shape the narrative beyond a few lines of dialogue, is what I’m saying.
You’re probably reading this and thinking: ‘well this is all very well and good, but what did you actually think of the film?’ and to that I say, firstly, patience is a virtue my friend, and secondly, I thought the film was terrific.
Granted, it isn’t the kind of film I’d want to curl up on the sofa drinking cocoa with, but not everything needs to be, and I have a place in my cynical heart for a black comedy, and oh boy, is this comedy ever black. It’s pitch-black and colder than all of your ex’s hearts combined.
Not that I’d expect any less than Martin McDonagh, whose body of work is a sea of black comedy-dramas ranging from hangmen to vengeful mothers, all the way up to crippled outcasts, he has a perverse eye for dramatizing the unspeakable and somehow making it insanely watchable.
His dialogue crackles and pops in a manner Quentin Tarantino would be jealous of, while his narratives twist and turn down darker and darker paths, all the while maintaining macabre humour about them, balancing that dark sense of humour with gut-wrenching drama and violence, made all the more effective by how visceral and real it is.
I’m determined to not spoil too much of the plot for this film, as it’s a real hidden gem and I highly recommend you all go and seek it out; but about a quarter of the way into the film, it’s revealed just how big a mistake Ray has made that justified this jaunt to Belgium, and it makes you reconsider everything about his character up to that point and beyond it. He simultaneously becomes a figure you sympathise with, and loathe in equal measure.
All of this is evened out by the characterisation of his boss, Harry, who is so psychotic he’d make Jeffrey Dahmer look tame in comparison, and even then, the performance is characterised and performed perfectly. He never comes across as a cartoon villain, and also makes our two protagonists, who I’ll remind you are both hitmen, look like bunny rabbits in comparison.
Along with the excellent script and fantastic direction, which makes the use of its picturesque setting extremely well, the acting is also first-rate. Brendan Gleeson stands out for me, his performance has genuine warmth, while also making you believe that he has the capacity to be a ruthless hitman, and Colin Farrell plays a man in turmoil, and takes a character we really shouldn’t feel sorry for, and turns him into a tragic figure, they both turn in tour-de-force performances.
Also taking the spotlight and making the most of what he was given, Ralph Fiennes was the perfect choice for this somewhat-unhinged gangster. Taking what could have been a laughably insane character and making him both chilling and hilarious is no mean feat, and is yet another aspect where this film triumphs.
To sum up then; I really couldn’t give a hoot whether this film is a Christmas film or not. I just know that it is another phenomenal piece of cinema from a man who scantly works in the field, but having said that, there is a lot to say about quality over quantity, and In Bruges is nothing if not quality. It may not be one to watch on Christmas Eve (although its violence may well be representative of Christmas with your family, I wouldn’t know) but it is definitely one I’d love to re-watch at any time of the year.