Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, in

Dir. Martin McDonagh
(R) ★ ★ ★

In Bruges contains scenes that are utterly perfect in their writing, acting, and directing, and others that don’t work at all. It’s a black comedy that works when it’s black but not so much when it’s trying to be a comedy. Self-conscious, ersatz-Tarantino dialogue is a burden to scenes like the one where picking up a murder weapon turns into a conversation about the proper use of the word “alcoves.” Racial jokes abound, perhaps to underline that this is not a film about nice people, but there’s a relish to it that is off-putting, as if writer-director Martin McDonagh is enjoying himself too much.

But then there’s a scene like the phone call between Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and his boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), shown in a single take, where we sense that at the end of the conversation will be something dire, and we’re right. And a scene in the clock tower between Ken and Harry about morality and what they mean to each other. And several scenes between Ken and his partner Ray (Colin Farrell) about a crime Ray has committed that he cannot cope with. And a beautiful finale that repeats a judgment day motif through a foggy, dreamlike film set. Scenes like these are extraordinary, considering the ethical codes of career killers, their hope and hopelessness, and it all comes down to a moral choice about the best way to right a wrong.

And there’s a performance like Gleeson’s, which is one of the best of the year. His paternal warmth mixed with hardened pragmatism keeps the balance between the story’s darkness (Harry) and its wounded innocence (Ray). His conflict is the heart of the film, and his decisions point to an alternative to violence and cynicism. I can’t give a film with a character and performance like this a negative review. About half of In Bruges warrants four-stars. The other half deserves little more than two. I’ll split the difference.