Do I ever respond/steal from other people? Well, when they’re writing about In Bruges, yes, yes I do. Thank you, Philistine, for spreading the word about one of the all-time criminally underrated dark comedic gems. For those of you not familiar with Martin McDonagh (pretty much my whole audience, since this isn’t “Irish Drama Daily”), his work is filled with two things: the sickest, most deliciously ironic twists of fate ever, and blood.
Lots of blood.
No, really. During a production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the company went through five gallons of custom-made stage blood a night. Ten on Sundays, thanks to the matinee.
So, for those of you who haven’t seen In Bruges, here’s your warning: it’s very, very, funny, but very, very violent.
Or, really, it seems extremely violent. In truth, the number of people who get killed is pretty low (well, unless you count the deleted scene with an unknown English actor), especially when compared with the likes of, oh, The Matrix or anything with a battle scene. Mindless slaughter of faceless goons in battle? Whatever. Seen it before. Kinda heroic, actually. The few deaths we get here? Gut punches. Makes you gasp. Leaves you shell-shocked.
It’s all in the aesthetic distance. If you let your audience become involved with your characters over time, mixing the funny with the dramatic, having them enter the headspace of humor, where nobody stays dead for long, you can open them up and make them oh-so-very receptive to the very real traumas you’re about to inflict. Joseph Heller does this wonderfully in Catch-22; the whole things starts off as an absurdist tale of trying to conquer bureaucracy, but, as the book goes on, people start dying, the silly ironies become sick ironies, and small-time loophole con men become true villains—and then we get rape, murder, and truly shocking death all in short order, certainly before anyone’s adjusted from the old, ambling army camp where it was safe to trust people. McDonagh sets up his early comedy perfectly with the classic duo: fat man/thin man, good cultural tourist/pub crawler, old man/young man, comfortable & content/cold & hunted. One man is painfully normal, the other out of step with the world and its rules. If it worked for Fry and Laurie (and everyone else!), it’ll work here. One of the first scenes, with Ken and Ray on a canal boat, the former looking around, taking in the sights, the latter trying to hide in his coat and be grumpy, says it all: one of these people is not going to work by our rules, and the other one will try and force him to. Hilarity will ensue.
Which it does, even after a few guns get fired. It’s sick humor, to be sure—shooting a skinhead in the eye with his own blank pistol after he bursts in on everyone’s favorite kid killer/drug dealer cum pickpocket cute couple is pretty wrong, but defies every rule we mechanically go along with. Heck, even the racist horse-tranquilizer addicted dwarf getting very justly karate chopped after discussing geopolitics on coke is disturbingly delicious. This is black humor! Bring it on!
Then the lights go out.
This we didn’t sign up for, and, by the time it starts coming, you have no chance to retreat. Every stage trick a director could use to hit the audience comes out, just when you’re entirely emotionally unable to cope with them. Funny little ironies become lethal; slight little asides from five minutes in take on deadly importance. Oh, and when you think you’ve hit the dark, shocking bits? Oh no. That’s just character development and backstory. Just a little something loosen you up for what’s coming. More importantly, though, it’s establishing mechanisms that will become bleakly absurd. Irony, repetition, and snowballing: all of these are the tricks of the humorist, but, with the right touch, can be used to build up horrors.
“Why don’t you both put your guns down, and go home?” Because that would defy the mechanisms that have been driving us to this point, that’s why! Doing the sensible thing, listening to the nice lady who owns the hotel, not killing anybody else—that’s human. That’s sensible. Turning people into machines that keep running even in the face of reality and sense? That’s where humor comes from, sure, but also truly horrific and brutal killing. “Don’t be stupid, this is the shootout” could have been the funniest line of the whole movie. The problem is, it makes too much sense when said by men with guns who delight in using them.