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-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, English Language Film Industries, United Kingdom & Irish Cinema

Cruelty for the Sake of It: Martin McDonagh’s ‘In Bruges’ (2008) & ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ (2017)

Directed by: Martin McDonagh || Produced by: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czerin [1, 2], Martin McDonagh [2]

Screenplay by: Martin McDonagh || Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Jérémie Renier [1], Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage [2]

Music by: Carter Burwell || Cinematography: Eigil Bryld [1], Ben Davis [2] || Edited by: Jon Gregory || Country: United Kingdom, United States || Language: English

Running Time: 107-115 minutes || 1 = In Bruges, 2 = Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The recent Oscars success of Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin (2022), including its two acting nominations for Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson’s performances, stood out to me this 2022 awards season. Though I swore 2021 was the last calendar year I’d pay the Oscars any serious mind, Banshees caught my attention due to both its lead actors as well as its director’s filmography; I’d seen In Bruges, McDonagh’s screen directorial debut and also starring Farrell and Gleeson, as well as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, another McDonagh Oscar-favorite, years earlier, so I felt compelled to revisit my feelings on those two films.

In Bruges is one of those snarky, dry, black comedy “cult classics” that drives me up a wall given its limited, aimless premise, inexplicable extreme violence, and exaggerated characters. It reminds me, in hindsight, of Yorgos Lanthimos’ English-language debut and another Farrell-vehicle  (sensing a pattern yet?), The Lobster (2015), which has the classic, glossy sheen of a meanspirited independent drama but whose narrative and characterizations feel more like a live-action adult cartoon, as if a two-part episode of Family Guy (1999-) was converted into a sardonic awards-bait feature. My primary issues with Bruges, much like Three Billboards, have to do with these tonal clashes that stem from various bizarre and, quite frankly, unlikable main characters operating within an otherwise realistic, everyday setting. The borderline caricatures throughout the film no doubt speak to McDonagh’s extensive theatre background, much like the theatrical, over-the-top behavior of numerous castmembers in Three Billboards (see below), and I don’t think that exaggerated style of writing fits in the diegetic background of either story.

In Bruges‘ most important sequence, Gleeson makes the baffling decision to not kill Farrell because Gleeson pities how Farrell has become so depressed because… “LOL, so random?”

In Bruges revolves around a pair of Irish mob assassins, Farrell as a rookie and Brendan Gleeson as a veteran, who are sent by their boss, a great Ralph Fiennes, to the titular Belgian city after Farrell screws up a hitjob. Our two co-leads thereafter meander aimlessly throughout the charming (according to Gleeson’s character) or boring (according to Farrell’s character) town for almost the entire first act before Fiennes gives further instructions, establishing little more than a handful of forgettable side characters whose arcs go nowhere other than gory injuries or death. Aside from the violent black comedy, which I argue doesn’t produce anything in the story besides meaningless shock-value, none of the major plot-points make sense, including and especially numerous actions taken by Gleeson. I found myself relating to Fiennes’ quasi-antagonist for much of the movie more than Farrell and Gleeson’s leads, in fact, until the former too ends his character development with a farcical display of violence nonsensical for most cartoons, let alone a live-action drama. 

Three Billboards, much like Bruges, isn’t notable outside its weird screenplay, exaggerated characterizations, and melodramatic dialogue save for one long take where supporting actor Sam Rockwell throws Caleb Jones out a window. McDonagh’s direction in both films is so understated and forgettable his cartoonish characters take center stage even when they only mutter obscenities at each other instead of yelling them, and not in a good way. Three Billboards’ narrative is less dumb than Bruges but just as theatrical, whereby protagonist Frances McDormand pressures local law enforcement, led by chief Woody Harrelson, into further investigating the rape and murder of the former’s daughter despite how the police have turned up no leads months after the violent crime. This pressure campaign involves McDormand’s rental of the three eponymous billboards with provocative accusations toward the local police force’s inaction, and the plot thereafter wanders in similar fashion to Bruges, where McDormand glares at various perceived wrongdoers for almost two hours. The only major stylistic deviations between Bruges and Billboards is how the former’s weird, excessive, unpredictable violence has more of a comedic tone, while the latter has a much larger, superfluous ensemble cast (e.g. John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Samara Weaving, etc.)

Perhaps due to his starring roles in a string of mediocre to bad projects throughout the 2000s-2010s (e.g. Daredevil, S.W.A.T. [both 2003], Alexander [2004], Miami Vice [2006], Horrible Bosses [2011], Total Recall [2012]), Colin Farrell’s filmography left a bad taste in my mouth when I came of age. Martin McDonagh’s high-profile black comedies, tragicomedies, or whatever you wanna call them felt like distilled forms of the man’s star persona, In Bruges most of all, with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri channeling similar but more heavy-handed, Oscar bait-tonal vibes. Both films’ screenplays, their dialogue and characters most of all, come across like animated productions despite their ostensibly serious topics (organized crime, child manslaughter, and suicide in Bruges, rape, murder, and policy brutality in Billboards), brief yet extreme on-screen violence, and politically charged social commentary. Those concepts don’t gel in the slightest in either case, with In Bruges resorting to sarcasm and shock-value to appear edgy, while Three Billboards seems content with theatrical stereotypes and melodramatic, unbelievable character behavior as narrative allegory.

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell’s simplistic characters clash in Three Billboards with line after line of on-the-nose, laughable dialogue.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Oscars-favorites may come and go, but my distaste for Colin Farrell’s 2000s filmography lives forever, In Bruges most of all. Writer-director McDonagh appears taken with the man’s acting style, as he translates that sardonic, self-important star persona from In Bruges and (I assume) Seven Psychopaths (2012, his sophomore feature) to the equally bizarre Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Both film’s plethora of political diatribes, caricatures as characters, and unfocused, lackadaisical storytelling feel like a theatre director’s bad impression of Oscar-bait, a potent combination of most all that irritates me in contemporary popular cinema. That each film is filled with random, pointless bursts of extreme, gory violence only further irritates me given how much I appreciate cinematic bloodshed when it’s well used; there’s no rhyme or reason to any of this!

However… some of the jokes of In Bruges are good, like Farrell’s abuse of a Canuck he thinks is an American to avenge the murder of John Lennon, and I appreciate Three Billboards’ ambiguous ending.

—> Both films are NOT RECOMMENDED, though.

? Not once in all my years in the Midwestern United States did anyone refer to anyone else, let alone their own mother, as a “cunt.”

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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