Martin McDonagh directs Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes in this crime comedy where two hitman are instructed to hide out in Belgium.
Here’s a film that rope-a-dopes me every time I watch it. And I revisit it more than most movies of 12 years ago so I’m not sure why I’m consistently surprised at how great it gets.
The first act is merely really good. There’s some sparky rude dialogue that matches the foul mouthed causticity of Tarantino but in the unusual timbre of a Pinter play. Gleeson is an ever loveable figure (“Happy in your work?) while Farrell shakes off a decade of bland B-List Hollywood work and starts delivering on his promise to be an alternative movie star. The gorgeous yet ominous setting is indeed “a fairytale fucking town” and we get a few classy continental honeys thrown in to boot. It is a bad taste fine time on the couch – eye candy for everyone, indefensible behaviour, shocking attitudes and some implied violence on the horizon. But then things start to tighten and supersede themselves.
The mordant sense of humour becomes bleakly absurd. An air of doomed fatalism takes over the boozy wit. We get a flashback to the job that got our pair of gun toting Vladimirs and Estragons into this purgatory and it is incredibly cruel punchline. Churns up emotions in a film that has taken pleasures in being cold and arch.
Then Ralph Fiennes’ Harry finally arrives on the scene. We have fair warning he is in the post. A threat filled mention here. An expletive filled telegram there. A long one-shot phone conversation where Gleeson has to walk a verbal tightrope not to incur his unpredictable, unseen wrath. But after an hour he finally lands in the film. Snarling, stubborn, danger oozing out of every pore. Better yet, when you sit down and have a chat with him Fiennes adds just an outline of humanity. He has his own strict code and affections. He’s not so much deranged as utterly intractable. The barking grim reaper for fools who shan’t be suffered lightly. Hands down he is one of the best movie villains of this century. Better than Heath Ledger’s The Joker and on a hallowed par with Sexy Beast’s Don Logan and Inglorious Basterds’ Hans Landa. “You fucking retract that bit about my cunt fucking kids!”
It builds to a finale that is genuinely thrilling. You are never sure who will survive, who should survive and how that is even possible. McDonagh’s dexterous screenwriting keeps the barmy yet succinct dialogue flowing even in moments of significant action. As with most debuts McDonagh has a tendency to tesselate every element introduced. Debut calling card features have a need to make sure everything neatly ties together in a bow, taking too much effort to make sure every loose end is knotted with a flourish. It is a freshman trick that impresses teenagers and people who think Hollywood films are mindless. M Night Shyamalan has never outgrown it. Yet the OCD tidying up of plot points, characters and imagery reaches a nice crescendo here… it feels earned rather than showboating. It is a first film, so I’ll forgive it. It certainly doesn’t dampen a really wild slice of crime genre cinema.
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