In Bruges

Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy

Directed by Martin McDonagh

Rated R

Imagine if Laurel and Hardy were Irish hitmen caught in a web of existential angst. That’s what In Bruges is: intellectual slapstick, a ticklish combination of comic torment, a brutal grasping of life’s fickleness, and sheer bloody violence that’s like a shout in the dark. It makes you laugh, however shallowly, because what else can you do? It makes no goddamn sense at all.

This is not an uplifting movie. Just so’s you know. Don’t expect kittens and balloons.

Ray and Ken — they’re hired killers — work in London. As In Bruges opens, their boss has told them to scram for a while after a job goes bad. He sends them to Bruges, Belgium, for reasons that transpire later to be bizarrely hilarious — which, if I gather correctly, is like sending someone to Gaffney to hide out.

It’s a place where a weekend feels like a year, except it looks like a pretty little town that I’d actually really like to visit. That is, if I weren’t, you know, haunted by something horrible that had just happened to me.

You have to wonder what would be horrible to a hitman, what would bother him, but Colin Farrell’s Ray is clearly distressed about whatever went down in London, which is in itself rather distressing to the audience.

Ray seems like kind of a nice guy. I mean, even though he’s a hired killer. For all that, he comes across as pretty obnoxious and mean and thoughtlessly rude. (There are a few funny and very un-P.C. scenes of his shocking rudeness.)

But here’s the thing about Ray, and about Farrell’s inspired performance: He’s dumb, but he’s deep, in his own unique way.

He doesn’t mean to be mean when he says things that anyone with half a brain would recognize as mean and hence would keep their mouths shut about. He means to be honest — he’s even enthusiastic, in a strange kind of way.

He tells Ken, attempting to explain how bored he is by Bruges and all its medieval churches and cobblestone streets, that “If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.”

“Didn’t” meaning, clearly, that he didn’t grow up on a farm, leaving open the possibility that he might be somewhat mentally retarded. And I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that mental retardation is in itself amusing: I mean to suggest Ray’s deeply philosophical bent is hilarious because of its unfettered honesty.

He does not realize what an idiot he is. He’s a peculiar brand of brilliant.

So when he says, as he and Ken are stumbling around Bruges and happen upon a movie shoot, “They’re filming midgets!” you know, he’s genuinely excited by this, and in no way that is meant to be exploitive.

Ray ends up befriending the midget, after all.

If this sounds surreal, yeah, it kinda is.

First-time screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh has crafted a movie that is at once improbably funny, deeply disturbing, intensely thrilling, deliciously brainy, and totally visceral: Basically, it’s just all-around genius.

It gets way more involved than having Ray and Ken wander an old city for a few days, pondering the meaning of life — Ken gets a call, eventually, with a new job from the boss, and later the boss shows up, and it all ends up as a much a parody of the hitman action movie as a walloping hitman action movie itself.

And have I not mentioned Brendan Gleeson? He’s Ken, and he’s the perfect foil for Farrell’s Ray, smarter and wilier but far more sentimental than Ray.

This may sound weird, but work with me: In Bruges is kinda a bookend to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, if you’re the kind of moviegoer who just wants great story and unforgettable characters and doesn’t care whether they come in a screwball chick-flick package or an ultraviolent hitman-black-comedy package.

For Farrell is Amy Adams’ ditzy showgirl and Gleeson is Frances McDormand’s sensible chaperone. They discover what they’re made of in each other’s company. And it is not, perhaps, what either of them would expect.