Martin McDonagh is behind some true gems, from the wicked Seven Psychopaths to last year’s tremendous The Banshees of Inisherin. However, his now-prestigious career began with a little 2008 film that turned 15 earlier this year. In Bruges stars Oscar nominees Colin Farrell as Ray and Brendan Gleeson as Ken, two hitmen hiding in the picturesque city of Bruges after a job goes terribly wrong.
Time has been kind to In Bruges, with many considering it among the 21st century’s finest black comedies. However, the film has received a second, more peculiar reexamination as an unexpected, yet satisfying Christmas classic. A biting, occasionally cruel, and tragic black comedy about two lonely hitmen might not be anyone’s idea of a holly, jolly Christmas movie –alas, and against all odds, In Bruges is just that. Why? Well, for starters, it’s set on Christmas. However, the film’s holiday connections run deeper than just that.
To understand In Bruges‘ status as a great Christmas movie, one must first understand what makes a great Christmas movie. It’s not necessarily the setting, as many films can be spiritually Christmas-coded — think of Lars and the Real Girl, You’ve Got Mail, or even something like Iron Man 3. It’s not the holiday cheer, either, as plenty of Christmas movies are remarkably sad. It’s not even sticking to a well-established formula, as many Christmas classics are unafraid to experiment within those confinements.
No, what defines a great Christmas movie is the emotion it evokes; every Christmas classic must make you feel something. Most settle for nostalgia, the memories of a wonderful time when all was innocent and carefree, or sheer and unadulterated joy – ’tis the season, after all. However, holiday films can also be wistful, celebratory, romantic, mischievous, or comforting. It matters not the emotion they evoke; the important thing is that they evoke something in you. This is the primal aspect of a great Christmas movie: more than just entertain, they engage with their viewers, actively trying to make their way to a person’s heart.
Not all of them do, of course, but most succeed, at least for the time between the title card and the credits. Think of the constant influx of Hallmark movies coming out every year — they make you feel something: longing, joy, cringe, you name it. You might forget about them as soon as the TV is off, but they still leave a warm feeling inside. But the best leave something that actually lingers, a flame that goes out from January to November, only to be lit again as soon as the turkey is consumed and the twinkling lights are on. When it comes to holiday entertainment, feeling is the name of the game.
Well, yes. Think about the first time you watched In Bruges. Didn’t it feel like a present just waiting to be unwrapped? You think you’re watching a black comedy about two hitmen, and you are; however, there’s so much more to unpack with it. The plot is as surprising as it’s devilish, a never-ending string of surprises, some pleasant and others rotten.
McDonagh’s plot is unrelenting and unexpectedly fast-paced, not wasting a single minute of the film’s 107 minutes. More importantly, he finds the right balance between genuine humor and astonishingly piercing drama that borders on tragedy, a unique ability not many writers possess.
Beyond evoking feelings necessary to qualify as a Christmas movie, In Bruges features many of the main thematic strings found in the best holiday classics. At its core, In Bruges is about making the best out of the worst possible situation. Bruges is the film’s punching bag, but the true meaning comes from Ray’s journey with guilt and depression. In Bruges is a film about trying to rediscover joy, pulling oneself from the darkest pits of despair and plunging into something more hopeful. What better place to set it in than in Bruges, somewhere between heaven and hell?
In Bruges is also about another timeless Christmas theme: forgiveness. Ray’s struggle to forgive himself is compelling, if not necessarily sympathetic, much less relatable, especially considering his crime is the murder of a child. But the film treats his journey with tremendous emotional depth, allowing us to go along with it. Because he doesn’t excuse his actions, we don’t either, and watching him fight to evade his punishment, even though he is well aware he deserves it, is engaging, evocative, and riveting.
Like the best Christmas movies, In Bruges stays with you: its biting, absurdist humor; its gloomy yet strangely promising mood; its unwavering, bittersweet desolation. In Bruges is a masterful study of the treacherous side of human nature and its insistent desire to survive. The film examines human connection at all its levels — friendship, romance, companionship, and the passing yet meaningful bonds we make with strangers. In more ways than one, In Bruges examines togetherness and the power that human connection has in an individual’s life. One’s trajectory can change at any moment, even when a person is hiding, trying to avoid life at any cost.
It’s true that In Bruges doesn’t need the Christmas element to exist — nothing about its plot needs the holiday cheer to function. The story could be set in the summer, and nothing would be different except for an overabundance of tourists making things worse for Ray. However, it does need the holidays to evoke within us, the audience, something akin to understanding and empathy — after all, would we react the same to Ray if not for the quaint Christmas vibe surrounding Bruges? Perhaps we feel more compelled to relate to him because of the holiday spirit?
In Bruges is not a typical Christmas movie, that much is true; however, as it turns out, it is an effective one. So, if you’ve had your fill of cheesy romances, magical antics, and animated adventures, why not spend 107 minutes with two messed-up hitmen trying to make the best out of a really terrible situation? In Bruges, much like its titular city, is not for everyone, but those who allow themselves to discover its unique charm will undoubtedly find something rewarding within.
In Bruges is available to rent on Amazon Prime in the U.S. and Canada.
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