Russian Ark (2002)

It’s hard to say whether Russian Ark can truly be considered a movie. There is no plot, no actual story to speak of. There is but one character, a mysterious member of the Russian aristocracy who serves as the protagonist’s guide through the Hermitage. It’s also hard to say whether the protagonist himself is a character. The movie is shot in first person POV and we never really learn anything about the person whose eyes we’re looking through. This protagonist could well be nothing more than an embodiment of the viewer, an easy way for us to take a stroll through the museum without having to set up any rules beforehand. On the other hand, there is clearly a focus on film making technique, as well as artistry in the way that the camera moves around and witnesses whatever is happening around it. Each doorway transports us into a different time frame, giving us a glimpse into the world of the Russian aristocracy and the rise and fall of the royal family, all in the space of a gander through the halls of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. There’s also some impressive camera work on display as Russian Ark is filmed in one, excruciatingly long take, Eisenstein be damned. The set piece are beautiful to look at, but one questions whether this beauty arises from the film’s own merits or from the awe-inspiring architecture and design of the building itself. And if the impressive visual quality of the film does indeed arise from the architecture, can it truly be labelled a film? The mise-en-scene is a key part of film making, its manipulation and use in the thematic structuring are, in a way, what separates film as a medium from still photography or video capturing. That, and the presence of a story and/or active characters, both of which, arguably, are absent from Russian Ark.

Nevertheless, Russian Ark presents us with an interesting, if brief, look into the glamorous life of the aristocracy. We see czars and emperors living in almost unfathomable luxury. There’s a total of 2000 actors in Russian Ark, all of them choreographed to look as if they are going about their regular business. This business, of course, is by no means regular by our modern standards. The Hermitage is the stage of an endless ball, the scene of perpetual intrigue and excitement. And this is precisely my main thematic qualm with the movie. There is no semblance of realism, not so much as a pretense to historical accuracy when it comes to the lives of its passing subjects. Not that realism is the point of this film, in fact I assume director Sokurov might’ve viewed it as a nuisance. Cinéma vérité this is not. But even so, knowing that the main focus lies elsewhere, the film insists to an almost worrying degree upon painting the aristocracy as a noble, beautiful relic of a bygone era that is sorely missed. The Russian Ark is a daydream of the wonders of excess and power. One might assume that there’d be at least some judgement passed on to the revelry of this ridiculously rich social class, considering it occurred during a time when the average Russian peasant lived a terrible life of toil and poverty. Instead, the film embraces this culture of hedonism and looks at it through the lens of nostalgia and longing. Many critics fell for this portrayal of Russia, lamenting the death of the world that Russian Ark introduces us to without considering its implications and context.

Some might find my criticism unfitting or see my complaints as deliberately missing the point. I’d implore such readers to consider the nature of Russian film over the years and the way that it has been used to manipulate its audience. Look at Sergei Eisenstein’s works. The man is rightfully considered one of the most important and influential directors and theorists of all time for his contributions to film form as we know it today, but most, if not all, of his movies were propaganda pieces for the new ruling class. The same can be said for many others even today, with the Ministry of Defense financing pictures that paint the annexation of Crimea as a noble and heroic deed. Film has been used as propaganda in Russia since its very inception and it’s important to bear that in mind when watching Russian films that concern themselves with politics and history. That said, it’s not so easy to discern propaganda from the genuine ideology of the film maker today. The Russian people are disillusioned with their reality, as is tradition for them, and in their desperation they look back fondly upon their past, a past that is impossible to truly know and understand due to the nature of time and its tendency to distort and dilute information. For many Russians, the good old days are those of pre-Bolshevik Russia. For others, the Soviet Union represents a state of affairs that they’d like to return to. It’s nigh on impossible to be objective when it comes to Russian history. It’s a topic that is too raw, too politically and ideologically charged to analyze without letting emotions get the best of whoever is taking part in the discussion. In a sense, my criticism of Russian Ark is more of a warning than a genuine complaint based on analysis of the film. Nuance is extremely important when exploring history and this is what Russian Ark pretends to do, albeit it not quite successfully. Granted, it’s a gorgeous exercise in cinematography and the “screw it, we’re doing it live” attitude towards film making, but one must bear in mind the thematic undertones of a movie while praising it for its objectivity or accuracy, as many Western critics have done. Nevertheless, Russian Ark is worth a watch, even if solely for its technical and visual merits.

 

Under 800: The Guard (2011)

I’ve well and truly run out of superlatives to describe Brendan Gleeson’s acting with, especially when it comes to his work with the McDonagh brothers. His role as the straight man in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges showed just how much depth and likabilty he can bring to the table, while his performance in The Guard is everything you could ever want from the protagonist of a movie that falls under the British gangster comedy subgenre.

The Guard is the story of Sgt. Gerry Boyle, policeman on the island of Galway, who finds himself in the middle of a joint effort between Ireland and the US to bust a local drug ring, rumoured to have a new deal worth half a billion euros… or thereabouts, anyway. The plot isn’t particularly important, it’s merely a vehicle for John Michael McDonagh’s subversion of police procedural tropes and common story beats.

The beginning of the movie finds Gerry Boyle nonchalantly looking on as a car full of drugged up young men crashes, killing all of them. Gerry is left unimpressed, his first order of business being to make sure that the drugs are taken out of one of the boys’ pocket, either because he doesn’t want the parents to find out about them (as he says to himself while popping one of the pills into his mouth) or because he simply wanted to keep some of them for himself. We don’t really get Gerry throughout the movie, we just sort of watch him go about his business and wonder if he’s a genuine idiot or simply uninterested in his job.

Then Gerry meets his new partner, a young and enthusiastic man who wants to do everything by the book and to bring justice to any and every wrongdoer. It comes as no surprise that this young idealist is killed early on in the movie, as can be expected from a movie about a jaded cop and his new partner. Usually what follows is a sudden change of heart on the jaded cop’s part, but The Guard isn’t interested in any of that. In fact, this particular movie does its best to avoid exploring any of the themes that are common throughout the police procedural genre. The Guard mocks the modern Hollywood infatuation with sound bite philosophy and surface-level interpretation of otherwise nuanced and complicated concepts. The group of drug dealers spends its car rides quoting philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, they throw around quotes without context and accuse each other of not having read the source material. Mark Strong’s character even has faux-serious moments of contemplation regarding the pointlessness of his criminal activity and of life in general. It never comes across as overly absurd, but the satirization is overt and enjoyable, as is the case with the majority of the film’s brilliant script.

Speaking of the script, it could have done with some editing, despite its overall stellar quality. Certain plotlines exist seemingly for the sole purpose of humanizing Gerry, something that is somewhat unnecessary considering the nature of the film. Gerry Boyle, to me, isn’t supposed to be a serious character. He’s very much a caricature, both of the jaded, alcoholic cop archetype and of a certain type of Irishman, one that is ignorant of the outside world and its rules, preferring to think only of the rules of his local village or town. When FBI agent Wendell Everett (portrayed by Don Cheadle) arrives on the island, Gerry Boyle proceeds to badger him with questions about the projects and Compton, despite Everett’s saying that he grew up in a privileged family, away from the “hood”. Boyle either doesn’t hear him or doesn’t care, continuing to ask questions about the ghetto and thinking of Wendell as a gangster. All of this is done with a straight face, leaving the audience to wonder whether Boyle is an idiot, a legitimate racist, or simply someone who is interested in hearing about things that he has never seen or experienced.

The last 20 or so minutes of the movie are a bit too dramatic and seem almost out of tone when analyzed as part of the whole movie, and the ambiguous ending feels a bit forced, leaving the audience to wonder whether Boyle survived his confrontation with Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham’s drug dealer characters.

The dialogue is witty and quick, the character interaction is very reminiscent of that in movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, every exchange feels like a verbal spar. I also appreciated the amount of non-intrusive foreshadowing in the script, it sets up the latter part of the film very well and gives everything that happens a sense of realism and logical consistency. All of this is also helped by the editing, which is fast-paced and gives the film a fresh and energetic look, much like Guy Ritchie’s gangster movies and Edgar Wright’s rapid fire and smash cut comedy, except more understated. It’s not the focus of the funny moments, but it underlines them and gives them some extra oomph. What is it with Brits and visual and technical comedy these days?

Overall, The Guard is an incredibly fun movie, elevated by brilliant acting and an inventive script that brings its characters to life and turns them not into real people, but into people we might wish existed, if only for the comedic value of their very presence.

The Big Sick and what makes a good romantic movie.

To give you the gist of it, The Big Sick is the story of Kumail and Emily and their pursuit of love and happiness in the face of the cultural discrepancies that stand in their way. Kumail’s parents want to arrange a Muslim marriage for him, in keeping with Pakistani tradition, while he himself isn’t even religious, but keeps up appearances because he fears being exiled from his family. Then stuff happens. I usually don’t keep these reviews spoiler-free, but in this case explaining the plot would mean taking away from the viewing experience, so I won’t.

The Big Sick had a budget of just 5 million dollars and was written by Nanjiani with the help of his wife, the real Emily Gordon. It premiered at Sundance and received universal critical acclaim, which led to the film being picked up by Amazon Studios, which significantly helped the distribution and subsequent commercial success of the movie. The Big Sick made 49 million at the box office, making it the highest grossing indie of 2017 (so far).

What sets it apart from the rest of the schlock that the rom-com/rom-dram genre has to offer is its ability to juggle its themes in a way that seems completely effortless and natural. It switches tones with such ease that the viewer doesn’t even truly notice the transition between comedy and drama, the movie flows like real life does – one second you’re talking to your girlfriend about something as inane as the weird American pronunciation of the name Craig, and before you know it she’s found your box-full of headshots of attractive Pakistani women, ready and waiting for a lucrative arranged marriage. Yeah, it sounds ridiculous when you write it out, but the chemistry between the two leads, Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani, makes their on-screen relationship as believable and realistic as romances get. It’s truly amazing to see how much can be achieved with just a strong cast and a well-written script. Even Ray Romano gets some actual acting done instead of phoning it in with his usual Everybody Loves Raymond shtick.

The dialogue is very snappy and quick-witted. Sure, there are some jokes that feel somewhat forced, like most of the stuff that Bo Burnham’s character says (half of his jokes sounded like they came from TJ Miller in the remarkably dull Deadpool), but the majority of the script is polished and genuinely funny. Nanjiani really does carry the latter half of the movie, displaying his ability to portray a much wider array of emotions than expected as he goes from sadness to rage and desperation.

So what does The Big Sick tell us about its genre and how to execute it properly? As mentioned above, a movie like this absolutely needs good characters. Any romantic comedy or drama is dead in the water if its writer isn’t competent or imaginative enough to create a pair of interesting and likable characters that the audience can connect with emotionally. We can’t root for a plastic cut-out or a walking cliche, and I say that with the conviction of someone who is above fed-up with manic depressive dream boys and girls and their tales of pseudo-depression and Facebook-tier philosophizing. A great example of horrible characterization can be found in this year’s In Search of Fellini. The protagonist is a sheltered girl that has never had any friends or, as far as I could tell, even gone to school. Her mother raised her at home, watching black and white movies with optimistic and hopeful messages, creating a false image of life and human interaction in her daughter’s head. The whole movie hinges on this ridiculous, nonsensical premise. It gets worse though, as this girl goes to Italy in the hopes of meeting the great Italian director Federico Fellini. She has very limited funds and no skills, social or otherwise. It’s all the story of her dreamy mental illness, which never even gets mentioned or noticed because apparently it’s not unusual for someone to spend their days watching romantic movies and fantasizing about having a relationship while simultaneously being completely unable to function as a human being, and how it led her to living the life that she was meant to be living. It’s cheap, it’s boring, and it’s offensive to anyone who has ever suffered from an actual mental illness. Compare this to The Big Sick where the characters behave like actual human beings instead of personified Tumblr posts. They’re not defined by any one thing, they don’t fall into some predetermined category that provides a template for their actions and opinions. Kumail and Emily react to the world they’re in, to the situations that they’re faced with.

Dialogue is the second important point. No, it doesn’t need to be on par with the works of Paddy Chayefsky or Aaron Sorkin, but it needs to have rhythm. Take a look at The Coen Brothers’s films for an example of what rhythm in dialogue looks like, even in their weaker films that lack an impressive script. The cutting of the scene, the pauses, the very ebb and flow of conversation matters just as much as what is being said. A lot of the dialogue in movies in general these days sounds sterile and restrained, as if the characters simply need get something out of the way before continuing on to the next set-piece. The most memorable scripts, for me, are the ones that accurately portray human interaction, like in Before Sunrise, Lost in Translation, Network (despite its over-the-top satire), The Social Network, The Big Lebowski. All of these movies, even when they those that on occasion plunge into absurdity, share one thing in common – their ability to entertain you for hours on end with just the acting and dialogue. That’s why the script is so important in a rom-com, and in character-driven movies in general. They can’t fall back on the visual or technical aspect of film making because that would go against their stated purpose (not that they can’t be visually appealing, mind you, I’m simply arguing that their focus inherently lies elsewhere). The Big Sick hits the sweet spot. Its writing is impressive in that it meshes comedy with character development. It both furthers the plot in a non-intrusive way and entertains the viewer. I expect this movie to be near the very top of my Best of 2017 list.

On Christopher Nolan and Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar is a mediocre movie. And the reason lies not in the product, but in its creator and his hubris. What was supposed to be a modern sci-fi epic in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, turned out to be no more than a melodramatic adventure movie with pretences of intellectual depth.

Around the release of the movie, many gushed over the stunning visuals of Interstellar, praising its beauty, as well as the realism of the CGI. I’d be inclined to agree, if we were discussing still photography. But the fact of the matter is that Interstellar is a boring movie in every sense of the word, and that includes its visuals. See, most great directors have mastered the art of visual storytelling. Blocking, lighting, transitions and editing, different in-camera effects. What Interstellar presents us with is sterile cinematography. There’s nothing clever about the way things are shown and presented to the viewer. No depth to the image. No meaning behind it. Everyone remembers the match cut in 2001, the one that transitions from a bone thrown in the air, the very first weapon in the history of humanity, into an orbiting satellite with nuclear capabilities. There is very little of that in Interstellar. The cinematography of Interstellar can only be described as functional. It shows you what is happening. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s very little symbolism or world building to be derived from it. Take a look at this still from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001-A-Space-Odyssey-024.jpg

This is a great example of a meaningful shot. As the apes huddle around the black monolith that has appeared in their lair over night, the camera is placed at its very bottom, staring up at the rising sun. It’s the dawn of man. The beginning of our long journey, our evolution. There is much more that can be said about this in the context of the film, but I won’t go any further than that.

Now look at this page full of stills from Interstellar. Thousands upon thousands of them, probably every single shot of the movie is in there. And what do we see? Establishing shots. Close-ups. Mid-shots. Shot-reverse shot during conversations. The occasional view of the Earth from far away. Some stills of a CGI black hole. Dust. Space. There really isn’t much to look at, and really the only memorable shot was during the chase sequence with Dr. Mann, when the geography is distorted and seems to be closing in on the camera, heightening the tension and raising the stakes.

Now, one must agree that the lighting is quite exceptional and van Hoytema did a great job, considering the spacial constraints inside the space ships. It’s never easy for a cinematographer to work with practical effects, especially ones that move and are as complex as those in Interstellar. That is one thing I will always praise Nolan for – avoiding CGI when it isn’t strictly necessary and using practical effects where possible.

The issues I have with Interstellar’s cinematography play into a much wider problem I have with Nolan’s work, and that is his tendency to tell instead of show. There is a constant barrage of ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ in Interstellar. Characters spend minutes describing things to each other that both parties should already know. Whole discussions end up being nothing but very thinly veiled exposition. Nolan’s movies aren’t known for their riveting and believable dialogue, his brother Jonathan, the one who writes and co-writes all of his movies, is no Tarantino. It’s an issue that was most obvious in Inception, where one of the main characters served almost no other purpose than to ask questions so the audience could learn the rules of the world. Much the same can be seen all throughout Interstellar. Scientists, considered the best the world has to offer, sit around and discuss relativity like 8th graders, just so the viewer could learn that 1 hour on the planet they’re about to touch down on is equal to 7 years on Earth. Which in and of itself is hooey. Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist and scientific consultant for Interstellar, did his best to explain to Nolan that it was impossible for something like that to occur, but alas he was forced to bend the rules of physics in order to come up with a half-way plausible scenario.

The final scenes of the movie are always completely spoiled by this insatiable need to placate the audience with needless information. Initially, the inside of the black hole is interesting, it’s odd, it’s mysterious. But as the viewer tries to piece together the puzzle, to understand how this queer place, one that modern scientist aren’t even close to understanding, works, he’s overwhelmed by narration. The sense of wonder vanishes, as does our interest in what is happening on-screen, as everything is explained, down to the most minute detail. Connections are made instead of us. There is no payoff because Nolan takes it from us, replacing the satisfaction of figuring out a complex sequence of events with a melodramatic shouting session, courtesy of Matthew McConaughey.

And that brings me to the last point I want to touch on. As the credits roll, we’re hit with a realization – this movie wasn’t about saving the world from starvation or lack of oxygen. It was about family. Now, that could work, of course, anything could work as long as the execution is good enough. I’m sure that someone somewhere has a brilliant idea about how to put together a movie that combines familial struggles with epic space opera. That someone isn’t Christopher Nolan. Why? Because his characterization is abhorrent. His protagonists are almost always tropes, as are most of his characters in general. They act like walking clichés. Everything about them is plastic, it feels like you’ve already met them before, quite a few times at that. And that’s because Nolan doesn’t care about his characters, or his story for that matter. The man has a set of abstract ideas in his head, and very rarely do those ideas translate into anything more than a good popcorn movie with well-choreographed stunt work, great practical effects and horrible fight scenes. And I say that as someone who considers The Dark Knight to be the greatest blockbuster film ever made. But at the end of the day, that’s what his movies are – blockbusters. They’re meant to make money, not push boundaries. And decent movies make quite a bit more than bad ones.

 

 

The Master and power.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a controversial figure. Some laud him as the greatest contemporary film maker and a potential inductee to the pantheon of cinema, while others remain unconvinced by the former’s enthusiasm, and that’s putting it mildly. Accusations of baseless pretentiousness and lack of coherence, both in thematic and narrative structure, have accompanied the release of most of Anderson’s films. Before I get to discussing the work at hand, I’d like to make clear my own thoughts on the matter. The rules of art are not set in stone. In fact, I’d go even further and assert that there are no rules when it comes to creating a work of art. The writer cannot be held at gunpoint by a set of arbitrary requirements or expectations. Neither can the painter, the singer, the actor or the director. The rules should only exist as a guideline, as a means for the creator to keep in check his or her unrestrained flight of fancy. Bearing this in mind, one cannot fault Paul Thomas Anderson for creating films that aren’t cut and dry. That ask the questions but provide few answers. He engages the audience and challenges it to find the truth, their truth, wherever it may be, whatever it may be. Does a free man need someone else to tell him what is good and what is evil, what is just and what is not? No, because a free man is a thinking man, and the mind needs quandaries and inner debate like an engine needs oil.

So what is the deal with The Master? A great many viewers felt disappointed or confused upon finishing the movie because of what they perceived as a lack of payoff, be it in terms of character arc or closure of the story. But what’s important to note about The Master is that it is not a story as such, it’s a character study that pokes and prods, like all memorable works of art, at the very heart of the human experience, in this case power. Power is an abstract term, I know, but it’s a fundamental component of our societies and has been since the very dawn of our existence. There has always been a leader at the head of the group, someone who’s achieved superiority in one way or another. In primitive societies this superiority stems from the physical abilities and traits of the would-be ruler. In our modern, advanced world the difference between the leader and his followers is much harder to notice, much harder to perceive from the outside. Yes, money and birth factor in, but these two alone wouldn’t be enough to convince a large group of people, each member of said group being an educated, thinking, semi-rational human being with needs and desires of their own, that this particular person is worthy of climbing the ranks and receiving a great deal of influence over the group. And this is where we can learn much about the dynamics of power from The Master.

People are prone to becoming invested in ideas. Whether it be the thought of travelling the world or writing a book, an idea is something that gives purpose to our existence, it’s the driving force behind each of our conscious actions and decisions. But there is a particular set of ideas that is more lucrative than the rest, as evidenced by the creation of countless religions and philosophical schools of thought – those that explain our existence and give us a rough outline of what to expect after death. Fear is motivational, but hope even more so. Even if it isn’t well-defined or expressly stated, hope resides in the mind and heart of each individual with the will, power and opportunity to continue existing. And that is what Dodd, like many religious and spiritual leaders in the real world, offers to the followers of his doctrine. He claims not only that each and every person has lived and died before, but that this process is a continuous loop, as old as time itself. Life, according to him, is as intrinsic a part of the Universe as death. Add to that the fact that the knowledge of your previous lives is lost upon rebirth, and you have a cautiously optimistic theory that provides each person with an endless amount of blank slates and start-overs. This is the basis for Dodd’s cult following. The other important part of his success is he himself. He’s charismatic and well-spoken, fiery and emphatic when needed but tender and mannered when not challenged. His view of the world is that of a visionary, at least in the eyes of those who choose to drink the cool-aid and accept him as their master (quite literally, as that’s his title among his followers). At first he seems to single out potential members of his cult, vulnerable or useful people who he manipulates easily enough and keeps by his side as boot-lickers, body guards or, as was implied by his wife, sex dolls. It is this tendency to surround himself with a group of blind and easily manipulated fools that puts into question Dodd’s committal to his own idea. Does he truly believe in what he preaches? Or does he simply feel an innate desire to be followed and revered? Again, this film does not tie any loose ends. It merely asks and gives out hints, leaving the conclusions to the viewer. But of hints there are plenty. It’s hard to ignore the camera work in The Master, and it is the most obvious way of recognizing the relationship between whichever group of characters is on screen. The actors are placed and presented in certain ways or in certain parts of the frame so as to indicate their importance and their place in the hierarchy, and this is made blatantly obvious fairly early on, during a wide shot of the ship where Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell first meet. As the ship sails, the lower deck is full of people dancing, drinking and laughing. It’s hard to discern any one of them, it’s a large group of people having fun. But just below, on the lower deck, we see a lone couple having a discussion. The woman is seated obediently, staring up at her husband who towers over her and talks down, while a waiter stands a good distance away and tries not to interrupt. This shot shows us not only that power will play a role in the movie, but also that there will be a striking difference between the surface and the substance, between what’s visible to the public and what stays in the family. As the film goes on, we learn that Dodd isn’t nearly as powerful or all-knowing as he would have everyone believe. He isn’t even the strongest and most influential member of his family when it comes down to it – his wife defies and at times even controls him, his son believes him to be a hack. Scientists mock him and run circles around his idea of the way life works and his theory of processing which supposedly induces a sort of counter-hypnosis and permits the subject to become one with time and glimpse their past lives that aren’t actually past, but parallel (because cult ideologies are weird that way). But still, his following grows larger as the years go on, his detractors, as well as eventual inconsistencies in his teachings, remain largely unheard and ignored.

Another visual example of power dynamics in The Master is Quell’s hunched back, which shows that he is neither the leader nor the follower. He takes both roles at different times in the film, never committing fully to either. The hunched back shows that he’s not a kneeler or a ruler, but an amalgamation of both that comes out somewhat awkward and stunted. He comes to see Dodd as his surrogate father, but at the same time he can’t completely come to terms with his viewpoint or the way he runs things. Nevertheless, Dodd recognizes the fact that Quell is much stronger and sturdier mentally than any of his followers and in an effort to once more and for the last time assert his dominance, he tells Quell that, if he didn’t fully commit to the Cause, he would be his mortal enemy in the next life. This is possibly a throwback to Greek mythology, where Cronus realizes the threat his children pose to his rule and chooses to devour and destroy them before they can grow strong enough to defeat him. Quell doesn’t accept Dodd’s influence. At the end of the film, we see him using Dodd’s method on a woman he meets at the bar, further solidifying the point that Quell is a man in the middle of the road between master and mastered.

The Master is an intriguing movie, brilliantly directed and gorgeously shot. At times it even defies some of the most basic cinematic conventions like the shot-reverse-shot dialogue, but it does it in style, in part thanks to astounding performances by Joaquin Phoenix and, one of the greatest of all time, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a great, if somewhat loose, package thematically and visually and a must-watch for anyone willing to experiment with films that push the envelope.

In Bruges and creating sympathy for the anti-hero.

In the vast majority of cases, the idea of a story is to take the central character on a journey. That could refer to a physical quest that leads to changes within the protagonist and his surroundings, or it could mean a spiritual one that either changes the character fundamentally or reasserts his or her preexisting beliefs and feelings. Regardless of the details, the skeleton of a story almost always revolves around one person discovering something about themselves, or about the nature of the human condition, with the latter realization also having an effect on the particular character.

That’s all fine and dandy, but how do you make a viewer, reader or listener connect with someone who isn’t a good person? How do you make a normal, functioning human being empathize and sympathize with a criminal?

In Bruges is the story of two hit men who hide out in, unsurprisingly, Bruges, after a botched job that involved the accidental murder of a child.  The viewer doesn’t know the backstory from the get-go, so at the surface layer Ray, the younger of the two, just seems like an infantile idiot who can’t appreciate the finer things in life and still acts like a kid whenever things don’t go his way. He pouts, he’s vulgar and his manners leave much to be desired. So how come by the end of the movie the viewer is rooting for him?

The other hit man, Ken, portrayed by the wonderful Brendan Gleeson, is an integral part of it. He’s an older man, kind, well-mannered and well-spoken. While Ray refuses to even look at the beautiful architecture of the town, Ken walks around with a faint smile on his face, stopping here and there to take in the view and admire the beauty of the place. He explores, sees the sights and revels in the atmosphere, all the while doing his best to make Ray see Bruges for what it is – not a prison as the younger man sees it, but a beautiful spot for tourism. Near the beginning we see Ken climbing the Bruges tower and looking down on Ray as he sits huddled on a bench in its shadow, a symbolic scene that illustrates the divide between them not through words, but through picture. Gradually, Ken becomes a father figure for Ray, who comes to respect him in a way that many younger people do when they finally connect with one of their elders. As time goes on, Ray starts smiling, greeting people around him. He meets a girl and they fall in love. Despite his prejudices, he befriends a dwarf that’s almost as grumpy as he was in the beginning of the film. This is the superficial layer of Ray’s path, what even the casual movie-goer can see and appreciate, but the second layer is Ray’s struggle to reconcile his past with the present. To come to terms with the fact that he murdered an innocent child, and to find the strength to become another person and, as Ken puts it ‘save the next little boy.’

One important part of the movie is the flashback to Ray’s first job and last job. He’s in the confessional, speaking to his target, a priest. After a brief conversation, Ray pulls out his gun and shoots the man twice. The priest staggers away from him and opens a door in an attempt to either escape or to make the child in the room behind said door run away. Ray never sees the boy, but instead fires a few more shots into the priest’s back as he stands in the doorway. Once the body falls to the floor Ray approaches the door and sees a little boy with a bullet in the side of his head, sitting on a bench with a piece of paper in his hands. Ray immediately falls to his knees in shock. He stands there, dumbfounded and on the edge of tears, before Ken runs in and drags him out of the shot, but the camera lingers on the two bodies, Ray’s handiwork. It’s important to note that some parts of the movie are seen through Ray’s eyes, and this is one of them. The camera staying behind and ignoring Ray and Ken’s escape from the scene is actually Ray’s thoughts. They never leave that room, he never forgets what he did to the boy. While in Bruges, it seems as if he’s trying to forget about it, but it never works. In one scene he tells Ken he’s had thirteen pints of beer, but he’s still not drunk in the slightest. His conscience is always there, never letting him rest. One night he parties with cocaine, hookers and alcohol and he seems to have all but forgotten about his sin. But in the morning he wakes up alone, Ken gone from their shared room in the hotel, and we see a close-up of his empty gaze and tears rolling down his face. This is a painfully realistic portrait of grief and sorrow, of how they never leave you, no matter how hard you try to hide from them. That morning he gives all his remaining money to the proprietor of the small family hotel they’re staying in and goes to a park. He watches the kids playing for a while and waits for them to leave his vicinity, before pulling out his gun and cocking it. Ken stops him at the last moment, and they have a heartfelt talk afterwards, where Ray breaks down.

The rest of the movie facilitates Ray’s spiritual change – he finds something to live for, he finds a way to forgive himself. He finally wants to live. But let’s take a step back from In Bruges and assess what the movie did to turn Ray from an anti-hero who fat-shames American families in the street and beats up Canadians into a young man who made a horrible mistake but truly wants to turn his life around.

Point of view – letting the viewer inside the head of the character is very important. We see his motivations, his fears, his regrets. The great orchestral score helps convey Ray’s pain and puts the viewer in his shoes. The scene where he kills the boy is truly chilling, thanks to the cinematography and Collin Farrell’s brilliant performance, we see the instant regret in Ray’s eyes, we see a precipitating event that changes the character.

Supporting characters – Ken is possibly the most important part of Ray’s redemption. He turns into a father figure for him, helps his through his toughest and darkest moments and at the end sacrifices himself to give Ray a chance at living out his new life. Ray’s childish behavior is, at first glance, a negative character trait, but looking more closely at the relationship between Ken and Ray, we see that Ray is still practically a kid. He isn’t fit for the world he got himself into and it’s quite possible that he had no choice either (Ray mentions doing what he did for money, no out of rage or hate or any other reason).

Change – it’s important to bear in mind that Ray is an anti-hero, not an antagonist. He isn’t necessarily good, but he isn’t particularly bad either (as the movie itself also points out during Ken and Ray’s discussion about purgatory). Ray goes through several phases before finally arriving at his destination – the desire to live. At the end, it feels as if the viewer’s gone through the same journey and experiences the same catharsis as Ray, making it almost impossible not to feel a genuine connection with the character.

And finally, actions have consequences. For a character to feel believable and to act like an actual human, he or she needs to bear the weight of causality. The accidental murder never once leaves Ray’s mind. It’s a monumental beacon in the sea that is his life and it’s impossible for him to ignore it. Every emotion that he experiences throughout the story is in some way affected by this one event, making him look, feel and sound like a real person, one that the viewer can establish a relationship with.