In Bruges

I have long admired the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh for his bleak, darkly comic works, in no small part because almost every one of them features, in full view of the audience, at least one act of unspeakable violence. There is something visceral and real about seeing blood packets hidden in an actor’s wig spatter into the front row when his stage brother hits him in the head with a bat. That’s good theater, friends.

McDonagh’s first feature film as a director (he won an Oscar for a short several years ago), called “In Bruges,” takes the action out of the miserable villages of Ireland where his most famous plays are set but retains the violent action and caustic dialogue that make them so memorable.

His knack for creating horrible yet endearing characters is in full force, too, and “In Bruges” is essentially a character-driven crime story. The title city (pronounced “broozh”) is a beautiful medieval relic in Belgium where two professional killers are sent after a job in London goes slightly awry. Ken (Brendan Gleeson) is the more experienced of the two; Ray (Colin Farrell) is the newbie whose miscalculation brought them here at the behest of their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who has told them to sit tight and await further instructions.

Harry has booked them in a quaint bed-and-breakfast, quaintness being the city’s most abundant resource. Ken, a circumspect and peaceful middle-aged man, is charmed by the city’s gorgeous old buildings and canals; McDonagh, shooting on location, makes sure we see just how beguiling the old city is. Ray, on the other hand, is squirrelly after his London mistake, and given to excitability anyway. He hates Bruges immediately: “If I grew up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me.” His sour attitude changes only when he and Ken stumble upon a film crew shooting a scene involving a midget. Ray is fascinated by midgets.

After meeting the dwarf (Jordan Prentice) and a lovely crew member named Chloe (Clemence Poesy), Ray’s spirits improve dramatically. Still he is haunted by his conscience, though, and by apprehension about what Harry’s further instructions might be. Are they in Bruges just to hide out? Or will there be a job for them here?

The people in McDonagh’s skewed world tend to be racist, petty, and easily distracted by minutiae. Two men about to engage in a gunfight with one another can calmly discuss the terms of it so as not to harm the pregnant bystander. Mortal enemies can share a laugh over another person’s obsession with the word “alcoves.”

Yet none of this feels contrived, as it might in the hands of someone less fluent in this language, or someone who merely sought to emulate the bombast of a Tarantino script. (McDonagh, it should be said, has been writing Tarantino-esque dialogue almost as long as Tarantino.) The film is galling and vulgar and unrepentantly un-P.C., but avoids being merely an exercise in excess by giving its characters real emotions to deal with. Ray’s boy-like enthusiasm and limited attention span are believably funny, while Ken’s protective, fatherly sympathy for him is just as honest.

The breeziness and eventual dramatic weight of the story, along with the hilarious, snappy dialogue, help the film rise above its basic ordinariness: It is, after all, just another crime-based black comedy. Except that McDonagh and his seasoned actors imbue it with a little extra something. How pleasing that the dwarf thing, seemingly just a gimmicky quirk of screenwriting, turns out to be a crucial story element. That’s good filmmaking, friends.

B+ (1 hr., 41 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, several instances of rather graphic violence.)