“In Bruges”: The Trinity Storytelling of Martin McDonagh

Warning: spoilers and foul language below.

Almost a decade old, In Bruges, as with any cult classic, contains a message both universal and unique, concealed in layers of black comedy, absurdism, and blood. Following hired assassins Ken and Ray after a botched job as they hide out in ‘fucking Bruges’, the film is an exploration in morality and the debts it can accrue as well as incur. As with McDonagh’s other feature film, Seven Psychopaths (2013), the message can be boiled down to three points: morality, the debts of vice, and undertones of subtle (or not so subtle) religiosity.

I’ve seen this movie more times than I can count. I own the soundtrack. My viewership is unchallenged, except for perhaps Pulp Fiction and LOL (the latter a little harder to explain than the former). I find myself coming back to it often, watching it during rainy days, or just simply having it on in the background during writing sessions. Its appeal is equally comedic and tutorial — the jokes never fail to make me laugh, and the tangents are always linked to a larger and relatable message. Like those abstract pointillism prints you see in the nurse’s office, In Bruges reveals much more of itself than if it were just seen in one viewing; you must step back in order to see the whole picture.

Over a dark screen, Ray (Colin Farrell), speaks first: “After I killed them, I dropped the gun in the Thames…”, immediately imbibing the plot with the power of murder, a potent element used to immediately engross the audience—who’s murder? and why?—as well as establish that the speaker is already on the run after a botched job. The plot is presented quickly, without fuss or frills, and this helps acclimatize the viewer to the world they are entering, one which is violent and bloody, and saturated in an inherent presence of vice. Someone (or more) is dead, and the narrator has killed them; all rules are off.

Vice and its consequences are a running theme throughout the movie. Ray and his elder mentor, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), are hitmen who kill for a living. Ray’s love interest Chloe (Clemence Poesy) peddles ketamine and ecstasy, and moonlights as a mugger. Jimmy the Actor, in between snorting lines of coke, preaches of the coming race war in America (prompting a line utterly unique in film: “you don’t know how much shit I’ve had to take from black midgets, man”). It is hard to say affirmatively that any of the characters are necessarily good people, and what I mean by good is ‘morally upstanding citizens’. They’re people, and people come in complicated packages; you’re not going to want them for neighbors, but that doesn’t mean that they are totally evil either. Even Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Ray and Ken’s boss and the presumptive villain, is hard to dislike, or even disapprove of. For these characters, Bruges is just as mired in vice as their own lives are. The film has airs of improvisation, of people trying to create meaningful experience in the bleakness of punishment, and this lends the film the enduring understanding that every action has a reaction, which manifests in the characters’ responses to their world, all contributing to the constant turn of the screw.

The message of the film pivots wholly on the debts of vice, which we will now call morality, because the moral responses of the characters is what both arraigns and exonerates them. Everyone is subjected to the consequences for the roles they have played and the things they have done: Ray is brought back to Bruges for attacking a Canadian (he “heet the Canadian”); Chloe’s skinhead ex, bitter after losing an eye trying to rob Ray earlier, betrays Ray’s return to Harry, who’s hunting him; Ken himself must assume the fallout from Harry for deciding against killing Ray—in a clever moment of foreshadowing at the beginning of the film, Ken mimes shooting Ray from the top of the Belfry, where he later warns him away with his own suicide (a vice redeemed by a moral choice). Even Jimmy the Actor pays for a racist tirade with a karate chop to the neck from Ray.

in bruges

Morality is the saving grace which keeps the characters from being totally unredeemed. Harry is both a family man and an assassin with a hair-trigger temper, a man who apologizes for calling his wife ‘an inanimate fucking object’ and, in my favorite line of the whole movie, tells Ken: “You leave my kids out of it – you retract that bit about my cunt-fucking kids. Insulting my kids…that’s going overboard, mate.” He is the main voice of the dichotomy between crime and punishment; he sent Ray to Bruges in the first place to have seen something good before he would be murdered for killing a child. He lives by a strong code of justice, one further explored in a deleted scene where he kills the man who murdered Ken’s wife with a katana. Every action has an appropriate—if violent—reaction; an eye for an eye. In fact, it is Harry himself who proclaims to Ken that “If you ain’t got morals, what do you have?”. Even though he is positioned as the antagonist, his adherence to his morals saves him from being a textbook bad guy.

A last note on morality as the debt of vice: ultimately, violent means beget violent ends. Each of the men (Ray, Ken, Harry) pay for their transgressions with their blood. Even the skinhead ex pays with his eye. At one point Harry, incredulous at Ken for interrupting Ray’s suicide, which—as he says—‘would have solved their problem’, proclaims matter-of-factly: “I’m suicidal. You’re suicidal. Everyone’s fucking suicidal, you don’t hear us going on about it”. This laissez-faire attitude towards his own life and the role of suicide leads into another theme of the film: religion.

Obviously, Bruges as a setting is perfect for religious imagery. The opening shot establishes our eponymous setting: churches, cathedrals, grotesques, throughout the narrow streets of Bruges; having been there, there is a certain black soot that covers a lot of the older buildings, and one gets the sense that the city has only just woken up from a long, uninterrupted sleep.

We follow immoral characters through their journey, surrounded on all sides by reminders of morality. Ray and Ken, sightseeing, visit the Church of the Holy Blood, where Ken steps forward to see a vial of Jesus’ blood. The shooting script for this scene is particularly revealing:

bruges script clip

Ray is contrite about his role in killing a child, perhaps because of the history of religion in Ireland (which I might get into at a later date), and a scene of the crucifixion, a violent act, would not be a welcome reminder. He also killed a child inside a church, and being on hallowed ground so recently afterwards would make him uncomfortable. It was interesting to note that in the church scene, there are only tourists and passerby, but no priests.

Jesus’ blood plays an interesting role when put into the context of suicide. The power, for Ken, presumptively, is that it is the blood of a martyr, someone who died for the good of the world. Ken battles his own moral compass throughout the film, but by the end chooses to die for the good of someone else by falling off the belfry to warn Ray about Harry. For Ray, the blood is a reminder of his own role in an innocent’s death, but for Ken it is a reminder of the message of an innocent’s death, one that he ultimately identifies with.

The spectre of religion haunts the film; during a visit to the Groeninge Museum, they focus on Hieronymus Bosch’s “Last Judgment”, a hellscape of otherworldly and creative forms of punishments for earthly sinners. Ray, in a moment of contemplation, asks Ken if he believes ‘in all that’; the afterlife, guilt, sin, Hell. Ken thinks for a moment and answers, almost in surprise at his own words, that no, he doesn’t. Later, he explains that he believes in living a ‘good’ life, but must reconcile himself with the fact that he kills people for a living. Bosch, the Church of the Blood, Bruges itself, draws these questions out of these two characters, perhaps in a way that it would not have if they had gone elsewhere, Croydon, as Ken mentions.

Just as much as Bruges and its religious aspects cause the characters to question their own morality, there is a corresponding amount of sacrosanct imagery throughout the film, ones of crucifixion, martyrdom, purgatory, all especially in relation to Bosch.

The Last Judgment (c. 1482), Hieronymus Bosch. Groeninge Museum.

Jimmy the Actor is first introduced on set, filming a dream sequence for a Dutch film, later returned to in the last showdown between Ray and Harry. At one point, Jimmy declares his film to be “a Boschian nightmare”, and when it is revealed in the final act, it does indeed seem to be as if Ray has been plunged into purgatory, surrounded by fantastical, animalistic costumes, with the people around him transformed into half-beasts with the shapes of men. It is here that Ray’s journey becomes circuitous: Harry shoots him, and the bullet passes through and kills Jimmy, standing behind him dressed in a schoolboy uniform. Mistaking the dwarf for a child, unable to see his face because of his use of dum-dum bullets, Harry, without hesitation, turns the gun on himself and shoots—he pays for his transgression in accordance to his moral code—in a way, his own Last Judgment.

Ray himself travels through a semblance of purgatory, fed on a loop from viewing Bosch to entering the ‘Boschian nightmare’ itself. The sense of an endless world is helped along by reoccurring characters, from Chloe and Erik, the skinhead ex, to Marie and Jimmy the Actor, and even to the tower attendant, the Canadians, and the yoga-practicing gun seller Yuri, always curious about outsider’s knowledge on the alcoves. All—with some exceptions—appear in the final scene as Ray is being carted off to an unknown fate. As he floats, commiserating, between life and death, he remarks: “Maybe that’s what Hell is…the entirety of the rest of eternity spent in fucking Bruges”.

When films end, there are two choices for the audience: get up and go home, or stay and think about what you just saw. When In Bruges ends, what images stay with us? For me, what stands out is not only the religious connotations but the characters’ reactions to them, and how they are recycled into every major event in the film—I’m sure this is no mistake on McDonagh’s part. The messages are universal: the contrition of religion, morality, the ever-complex vacillation between right and the wrong, and the grey areas in between. What stays with me is the exploration into the inner workings and foibles of complex characters put in a situation where they all revolve around each other’s choices, something which, I think, is a very human message.