This is going to be an odd comparison to make, but about an hour into In Bruges I realized that it was like ketchup. I don't mean that it is like a condiment, because it isn't; in fact, In Bruges has a nice weight to it and is definitely a meal on it's own. And I don't mean that the movie has the taste of ketchup, because I don't even know what that would mean.
No, I mean something very specific by that. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting article a few years ago about how ketchup is a perfectly balanced food. The combination of it's ingredients - the tomatoes, the vinegar they use to preserve it, the sugar they add to sweeten the vinegar - add up to a food that hits all of the major areas of your tongue. It has just the right amount of bitterness, just the right amount of sweetness, just the right amount of saltiness - a mixture of flavors that's basically impossible to achieve. When I say that In Bruges is like ketchup, what I mean is that it is an impeccably balanced film, but not in a showy way; it's so unpretentious that it's perfection sneaks up on you.
In Bruges starts off as a comedy about two hitmen. Ray and Ken have exiled to a tiny town in Belgium because one of them botched a hit and they have to lay low until it blows over. Before he's even out of the train station Ray, the younger of the two men, is annoyed by how picturesque the medieval town is. His bitching sparks a lot of witty back and forth with his older comrade Ken that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a movie about smart-ass killers, or anyone who has ever been on a long road trip with children.
Before too long, however, Ray's interior shows through: he's legitimately troubled by the mistake he made back in London. One of the reasons why he doesn't want to be in Bruges is because it's too sleepy and he needs a more distracting place - somewhere that has a lot of loud pubs he can get drunk in so he doesn't have to directly reckon with his own conscience. Before too long, notes of sadness start to creep into the movie's tone, complimenting it's earlier sarcasm.
As the film continues to unfold, the movie adds more and more tones. When they happen to walk by a film crew at work, Ray stops to rubberneck and ends up setting up a date with a woman he meets on the set, adding a bit of romance to the story. While Ray is out on his date, Ken gets a phone call telling him that Ray is not going to be forgiven for his mistake. That phone call sets up a series of circumstances that will really expose who Ken is, pushing the movie away from being a pure comedy into being a character study of some people who happen to be funny. When Ray's chickens come home to roost at the film's climax, the movie will edge into action movie territory, but it does so without losing sight of the touches that made the film so endearing at the start.
Martin McDonagh, the film's writer / director, does a masterful job of controlling how the film's different tones feed into and away from each other. There's an absurd scene where Ray does a bunch of cocaine with a dwarf he met on the film set, and that scene ends with Ray karate chopping his diminutive drug buddy. It's funny, but it also shows how lightweight Ray's life is. When he's contemplating suicide because his guilt is almost too much for him to bear, his actions makes sense; if his grieving consists of doing stolen drugs with new friends he doesn't even like then maybe he doesn't have the tools in his toolbox to atone properly. But then Ken shows up and saves Ray from killing himself, and Ken's belief in Ray makes you wonder if Ray really could change. But then their boss shows up, and you have to wonder if Ken has lost his mind, putting himself in harm's way to protect Ray...
If you look at the poster before watching In Bruges it will probably seem generic - another mismatched buddy comedy? About hitmen? Really? Once you start watching, however, it's immediately likeable, and eventually it will be charming, and ultimately it will be meaningful. It's a complex collection of flavors that comes in an unassuming package. I know it sounds insane, but trust me: this is a ketchup movie.