In Bruges wastes no time, opening with a clinical narration: “After I’d killed him, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off my hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions.” Immediately, we’re thrown in at the deep end. Hitman, Ray (Colin Farrell), has made a mess of his first job for London gangster Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) and needs to lay low – in Bruges. He is well and truly bent out of shape about it. With him is Ken (Brendan Gleeson), an older hitman who decides to make the best of it, hitting the cobblestone streets and the yuletide fog with his trusty guidebook.

Bruges itself is as much a part of the cast as it is a filming location. Its medieval canals and dimly lit paths are a fitting backdrop for the twilight script and its examination of morality, blame and redemption. Ray, while carrying out a hit on a priest, has accidentally killed a little boy waiting to give a confession. Bruges is his own purgatorial “shithole”, his anger at being trapped there masks his torment over this unforgiveable act and raises questions over whether there is an afterlife.

Filmmaker Martin McDonagh, like Farrell and Gleeson, is Irish. Ray and Ken wander around Bruges’ Catholic monuments and quarrel with tourists. There is a sense of belonging or lack thereof. Both men, estranged from any semblance of typicality due to their career choices, are left in a city surrounded by families at a time for familial bonding, with the knowledge that their actions have irreparably broken another. “There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened”, Ray muses. When Ken in instructed to take out his young protégé over an unsettling phone call in which Harry talks about Ray as if he was already dead, his paternal instincts take over, setting him up in opposition to his boss and friend to whom he owes a long-standing debt.

Promotional posters and advertisements published in the run up to In Bruges’ cinematic release set it up as some kind of heist film. This would’ve been disastrous for Farrell, whose choice in projects for an actor of his standing had often been questionable. But this isn’t quite what we get. Instead, we get a neo-noir film hijacked by the real world. What starts as a vaguely scary intersection between gangland and the mundane – Ray describes washing the blood off his hands in the bathroom of a Burger King – becomes sublime absurdity as normalcy struggles with spectacle for control over the film.

In a way, watching In Bruges is comparable to watching Pulp Fiction but McDonagh does so much more than Tarantino to humanise his hitmen. They remove their contact lenses before they go to bed, join queues at tourist destinations, get drunk on Belgian beer and get on each other’s nerves both in their shared accommodation and while sightseeing. They trip over in the snow. Its constantly grim, just like real life. The film’s singular chase scene ends when the chaser stops to check his map having run out of breath and lost his bearings. Another character, mortally injured, uses what little life he has left to drag himself up the narrow winding steps of Bruges’ medieval tower to shoot a benevolent bullet but his vantage point is completely enshrouded by fog. It’s details like this that set it apart from any other crime caper. Disappointment overrules poignancy over and over again. McDonagh refuses to allow either tragedy or comedy take precedence, instead flipping from one to the other.

Ralph Fiennes’ Harry Waters is a different kind of villain, too. A bit deranged and certainly vicious, he is also an emotional cretin with a soft spot for his subordinate and confidant, Ken. It’s a unique role for Fiennes – a ridiculous but amusing and oddly respectable crime lord who sticks to an unusual but firm set of morals. His confusion when he comes face to face with the tragic faced Gleeson is somehow farcical yet touching, both men burying their mutual fondness for each other.

Farrell, however, is the star of the show. Exhibiting what made him a Hollywood attraction to begin with, his tears as he ruminates over the accidental killing of the little boy are heart wrenching, while his childlike strops as he follows his older colleague around the city are hysterically funny. There are some wonderful supporting performances which embellish the film without showing up the main cast. The two scenes that feature the eccentric arms dealer Yuri are highlights, building around his obsession with the word “alcoves”. In Bruges is masterfully scripted, sewing high-concept themes with bawdy chit-chat. McDonagh is a playwright first and foremost, which really comes through on-screen: the action is densely united, settled via a sequence of rewarding passages in Bruges’ medieval town centre. In Bruges has infinite replay value, revealing more of itself with every watch. The first watch is the most difficult, but only because you don’t know if it’s appropriate to laugh or not.

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