Thursday, 24 April 2008

Honour among vicious psycho killers

Saw In Bruges last night. It's an excellent, funny, moving film with two great leads, fun cameos and beautifully shot to boot. So that's fine - go see it. But it serves as a good example of a trope that's becoming (I think) more and more common, and which probably needs to be stopped.

The film's characters are all wrong 'uns. Even the love interest/magical redemptive girlfriend pixie (another trope which has gone too far, and for which Natalie Portman is largely to blame) who would in other films be a paediatric nurse or terminal cancer patient, is here a drug dealer/thief. The two leads are hit-men, working for a psycho gang boss. And this is where the trouble starts: if they were simply the evil scumbags their job titles suggest, we wouldn't care about them. So we're given reasons to think they might be OK guys. For Ray, the younger hit man, this almost works. This is because Ray spends the movie confronting the evil thing he's done, and struggling hard with it. We care about Ray because we see genuine torment.

For Ken, Ray's older partner, and Harry, the psycho gang boss, it's a different story. We get the two cod justifications that always get trotted out: Ken only kills bad people and Harry because he's a proper cockney, loves his faahmley. Now, I know what you're thinking: this is ludicrously unsatisfying as a reason to care about these guys. So we go one better: these criminals live to a code of honour.

Ken refuses one of Harry's orders, but refuses to fight him because of their history together. Harry comes to Bruges to kill Ken, but can't because he won't fight. Harry later refuses to shoot a pregnant woman, instead getting involved in a ridiculous dialogue with the man he's hunting. At the very end, without wishing to spoil it for you, Harry again demonstrates that he has to be true to his principles.

What a lot of poisonous tosh. However comforting it might be, however many series of the Sopranos we get out of it, we need to escape from the delusion that career criminals are plagued by scruples or honour or integrity. I'm willing to bet that in real life, people who have risen to the top of organised crime don't worry too much about who they kill, or hesitate over anyone who gets in their way. There isn't a point of view from which they're tarnished heroes, struggling with a bad situation. If your chosen profession is hitman for the mob, then you're a scumbag and you don't get to wiggle out of it with this "he never hit a woman" bollocks.

This is why No Country For Old Men is an excellent movie - Anton Chigurh is genuinely mad, bad and dangerous to know, and there's no pretence otherwise.

You should still go see In Bruges though, if only for the joke about Belgian inventions.

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