I keep a running list of movies I’d wished I’d written. Not just movies I like — I mean, I’d love to say I’d written “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Brazil” or “Empire Strikes Back,” but those are not writer’s movies. (Though, in a future post, I shall defend the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” as a brilliant piece of writing.)
It’s currently a short list, a list of little movies about lives and relationships, and they shine with brilliant dialog. “Being John Malkovich” is wonderfully weird and smart — I can’t believe someone actually turned that into a movie, and I wish it had been me. (I’m not sure I could ever out-weird Charlie Kaufman, though.) “Little Miss Sunshine” is a perfect egg filled with yolks like Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, and Paul Dano’s flawless Dwayne, the mute Air Force wannabe. In small movies like these, every word carries its weight, delivering some new insight into character, and furthering plot only enough to give us new viewing angles into the main players’ minds. Big movies have big action, but small movies have big characters.
So the other night we watched “In Bruges,” the first feature for writer-director Martin McDonagh. This movie came and went on the periphery of my vision, leaving only a few vague memories of positive reviews. I was unclear on it: Comedy? Gangster movie? Art film? Eurotrash?
It’s all of ’em in one, a great glowing candle of a movie.
I can’t believe the tightrope it walks without falling into any category, without once teetering over into cliche or dumpy genre tropes. (Well, one trope: the warm-hearted hitman. But it’s played so deftly, you don’t even realize that’s the trope you’re feasting on.)
In fact, it adds one more genre to its mix: “Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door” travelogue. Not since “The Third Man” has a city been such an effective cast member in a film. After “Third Man” I felt like I had been to post-war Vienna, just as “In Bruges” transports you to the Belgian title city. The city is more than a background for a chase sequence or a nice skyline for a romantic dinner. Instead, it’s a key player, as two on-the-lam hitmen try to fight restlessness and boredom by touring and debating the merits of this boring little burg.
Zingy dialog delivered with hot-cold humor and gravitas by Colin Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson. Beautiful cinematography that advances the story rather than just pretties it up. Tense gangster action. Characters teetering on the verge of self-destruction. And a story-within-a-story, as the “jumped-up Eurotrash ripoff” movie being shot in Bruges comes to resemble the Hell of a Hieronymous Bosch painting our main players debate on a museum tour early in the film.
It’s brilliant stuff, and here’s why it’s a writer’s movie:
1. Dialog that’s full of humor even if may not look funny on the page.
Thug: I can’t see! I can’t see!
Hitman: Course you can’t fucking see, I just shot a blank in your fucking eyes!
Typed out like that, this does not look like a joke. But McDonagh has a firm hand on what this scene should feel like, and by the time it makes it onto film, Colin Ferrell’s casual dismissal of the thug’s misery makes for a nervous, tension-relieving belly laugh.
2. Dialog that may appear crude or off-putting, but which the writer can tell is roguish and darkly comic and true.
Hitman: One gay beer for my gay friend, one normal beer for me because I am normal.
Crime boss: An Uzi? I’m not from South Central Los Angeles. I didn’t come here to shoot twenty black 10-year-olds in a drive-by. I want a normal gun for a normal person.
3. Memorable exchanges about small things that actually pull back the curtains on big things.
Crime boss: So he’s having a really nice time?
Hitman: Well, I’m having a really nice time. I’m not sure if it’s really his cup of tea.
Crime boss: …what?
Hitman: You know, I’m not sure it’s really his thing.
Crime boss: What do you mean it’s not really his thing? What’s that supposed to mean? It’s not really his thing — what the fuck is that supposed to mean?
Hitman: Nothing, Harry.
Crime boss: It’s a fairy tale fucking town, isn’t it? How’s a fairy tale town not somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and churches and all of that beautiful fairy tale fucking stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?
Hitman: Well, what I meant to say was —
Crime boss: Is the swan still there?
Hitman: Yeah, but —
Crime boss: How can a fucking swan not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing, eh? How can that be?
4. Comic use of dirty words. Ibid.