The similarities between the 2008 film In Bruges and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter aren’t exactly subtle. Two hitmen, holed up in a place they don’t want to be, are waiting for instructions on their latest task. Things don’t go to plan – it’s not quite the job they signed up for.
Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directed In Bruges, has never denied how heavily Pinter influenced the film. But there are deeper connections, and important differences, between the two works. McDonagh is a phenomenal playwright himself (though The Dumb Waiter’s director Piers Black-Hawkins tells me that McDonagh only wrote plays because no one would look at his film scripts). His magnum opus is the extraordinary justification of artistic freedom The Pillowman, a deeply twisted tale about deeply twisted tale-telling. But his earlier works are just as carefully sculpted – short snapshots of life in tiny Galway towns, always brimming with macabre characters and skeletons in closets.
While the personae of The Dumb Waiter are Gus and Ben, in In Bruges it’s Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson). As in Pinter, McDonagh’s characters populate their own little world, surviving off the mutually dependent relationship between them, as if they only exist to give the other meaning. And, as in Pinter, McDonagh draws such a careful dynamic between the two men. Sometimes they are father and son, sometimes exasperated brothers, sometimes best friends, and maybe even just strangers thrown together at a particularly fraught moment of their lives.
Similar moments of paternalism pop up in both pieces, with Ben/Ken acting like a dad mollifying his inquisitive son.
Ken: We have to stay here until he rings.
Ray: Well what if he doesn’t ring for two weeks?
Ken: Then we stay here for two weeks.
Ben: You’ll have to wait. Gus: What for? Ben: For Wilson. Gus: He might not come. He might just send a message. He doesn’t always come. Ben: Well, you’ll have to do without it, won’t you?
In The Dumb Waiter Gus begins as a child, aiming questions at Ben and trying to alleviate his own boredom. He’s complacent and carefree, though hints of some recent error or some growing existential crisis bubble almost imperceptibly to the surface. He starts to notice that something’s off. It’s an instinct more than anything. And then, when the dumb waiter comes into play, it confirms his paranoia. Ray’s background in the film, on the other hand, is made much more explicit.
McDonagh, presumably bowing to the pressures that the film industry imposes on its artists, has added much more to the plot than just a relocation. Relationships and storyline are more explicitly fleshed out, moving away from the mere hints that Pinter embeds in his cryptic dialogue. And McDonagh adds in the character of Harry (Ralph Fiennes in one of his greatest roles) to take the place of the “inanimate fuckin’ object” in Pinter’s play, the mysterious dumb waiter itself.
The other big theme that cuts across both pieces is the idea of heaven and hell – spiritual wastelands or physical locations in which to spend what seems like an eternity. Here’s In Bruges (abridged):
Ken: Up there, the top altar, is a vial. Do you know what it’s said to contain?
Ray: No, what’s it said to contain?
Ken: It’s said to contain some drops of Jesus Christ’s blood. I’m gonna go up in the queue and touch it, which is what you do. You coming?
Ray: Do I have to?
Ken: Do you have to? Of course you don’t have to. It’s Jesus’ fucking blood, isn’t it? Of course you don’t fucking have to! Of course you don’t fucking have to!
And the last lines of Ray’s last (fantastic) speech in the film:
Ray: Fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fucking Bruges.
For Ray, who despises every minute of being a tourist in that fucking fairytale city, Bruges is hell. Or maybe purgatory. At least, it’s some place where he begins to judge himself for his sins. He’s a victim in his own Bosch painting. Pinter is, once again, less explicit but the suggestion is definitely hiding somewhere under the surface that this flat is some kind of hellish Beelzebubble:
Gus: I wouldn’t like to live in this dump. I wouldn’t mind if you had a window, you could see what it looked like outside. I mean, you come into a place when it’s still dark, you come into a room you’ve never seen before, you sleep all day, you do your job, and then you go away in the night again.
Gus: The crockery’s good. It is. It’s very nice. But that’s about all I can say for this place. It’s worse than the last one. Remember that last place we were in? Last time, where was it? At least there was a wireless there. No, honest. He doesn’t seem to bother much about our comfort these days.
It’s minute details, as well as the sense of unending boredom, that disgruntle Gus: the lack of tea, of a window, of anything to do. And he’s trapped.
Ken: [looking at a surreal Bosch painting] It’s Judgment Day, you know?
Ray: No. What’s that then?
Ken: Well, it’s, you know, the final day on Earth, when mankind will be judged for the crimes they’ve committed and that.
Ray: Oh. And see who gets into heaven and who gets into hell and all that.
Ray: And what’s the other place?
Ray: Purgatory. Purgatory’s kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham.
Ray: Do you believe in all that stuff, Ken?
Ken: About Tottenham?
It’s difficult not to read elements of In Bruges back onto The Dumb Waiter, because so much is withheld in Pinter and so much revealed in McDonagh, though the relationship really works the other way. McDonagh’s film may be more rooted in concrete details than Pinter’s play, which relies on symbols and leaves the audience to pick up and ponder the smallest absurdities or inconsistencies in the back and forth of conversation, and In Bruges is funnier, but the connections between the two go deeper than coincidences of character. They are of the same stuff and substance, two pictures of the same relationship but created by different painters.