Martin McDonagh has a lot on his mind with his pitch black debut feature In Bruges. We spend ninety minutes with these characters that make decisions which then led into consequences in order to enact some kind of change within themselves or others. It’s an old well that seems as reliable as the crime farce sub-genre itself: can bad people change or feel?
This is the core conflict of the Irish/Belgian people dealing with the same situation, how this reflects who they are as people and clever inferences to their past whilst informing their present.
During our time with In Bruges, we follow two hit-men during their time lying low in Bruges, Belgium after a hit has gone south. In fact, it was rookie assassin Ray’s (Colin Farrell) first job, but when we find out he was told to kill a priest, he also killed a little boy without realizing it. His partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) sees this detour as a chance to take in the cathedral and rustic scenery of Bruges, a convenient get away that he just has to babysit someone inferior to him. Unfortunately, Ken discovers that his boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) wants Ray dead to cover up their tracks and setting moral boundaries with an immoral profession.
Ray is fidgety and whiny, attributes not particularly seen in someone who is supposed to be calm and collected when killing others for a living. Ken (and better yet, the movie) treats him like a little kid who is bored on a family vacation. Ray is constantly calling Bruges a shit hole and has a blatant lack of social un-awareness, unlike Ken, who genuinely enjoys his time in Bruges. This brings out more of a desire to change within Ray, he starts so low that it makes it all the more eager for him to change. When Ken is ordered to take him out, it makes it all the more tragic due to the lack of dehumanization that McDonagh chooses not to characterize. Ray is someone who is capable of change and making a better life for himself, it is here that we can’t see this same thing in Ken since he is just a pleasant man who happens to kill people.
McDonagh has a clear and visible admiration for Bruges and the timeless bygone era in which he sees. He presents this through the various establishing shots of the haunting, medieval buildings and recognizable pubs where Ken occasionally stops in. Yet through all the love he tells us he has for Bruges, he treats it as somewhat of a purgatory for Ray and his predicament. Since Ray behaves like a kid throughout a majority of the movie, it appears like he is not capable of discovering redemption all by himself. The movie even discusses this in a scene where Ken and Ray stop by a local museum and talk about a painting depicting God and his final days on earth. They eventually get on the subject of heaven and hell and Ray brings up the idea of purgatory to Ken when he hadn’t thought of such a concept. He describes it as the “inbetweeny one, you weren’t all that great but you weren’t all that shit either,” when in actuality, he could be talking about himself. His still someone who isn’t quite morally bankrupt or has desensitized to the violence acted throughout the movie.
This could be due to Ray’s lack of moral code which is exemplified by Harry and his standards later on in the film. He sees letting him go for accidentally killing the kid as intolerable as opposed to Ken who sees Ray as someone who is unfit for the job of a hit-man. There is a particular moment when he begins to break down, starts to process the life that he took from the little boy and how it was cut so short after an incident that could have easily been avoided. Harry is an eccentric but a methodical professional, which separates him from Ray and his constant irritability. Harry takes the effort to draw ethical lines in the sand to make him a better person and improve at his line of work, this can also allow him to have less of the guilt eat away at him.
The film has a sharp and cold sense of humor to it. With as much moral dilemma it has on its mind, there is a healthy dose of nonsensical morbidity that we get particularly commented by Ray. Take the person of short stature, Jimmy. He is relentlessly mocked and humiliated, yet clearly kinda deserves it, with frank remarks about race and mistreatment of the prostitutes and upheaval of drugs. It is left ambiguous as to why but maybe the unhappiness comes from a similar moral struggle as Ray is? It is possible that with the dwarf character, McDonagh is drawing our attention to others that treat Bruges as another place for self redemption, in any form that may take.
McDonagh’s films thus far have centered around those in a deeply personal crisis with the effect of others, some in their favor and others not. His characters might not typically rub off as likable or morally just, but this is how he has become so differentiated from others who focus in the farce/ dramedy sub-genre. Take in account his follow-up, 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, about a troubled screenwriter who gets tangled into his criminal friends schemes. Or 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the story of mother’s ability to grasp at anything she can to find her daughters killer in a broken system that comes across as void of hope.
All three are rich in the dark comedy, yet strike a tonal and thematic balance that is difficult to find anywhere else (especially with such varied locations to add to that). He is someone who believes in balance, despite our violence, loathing and mistakes, we can become better people with those that have faith in us. Tragedy that blends with humanity instead of conflicting is a rarity yet McDonagh does so with such ease, even though he doesn’t want to rely on conventional easiness for a narrative clutch.
In Bruges never feels the need to trap itself down to one genre, and while that may seem like an issue to begin with, McDonagh manages to find his footing even while staying noncommittal to one tone throughout. It can be called a dark comedy but there is enough layering of dramatic sequences to classify it as something more. You can make an argument for the films merits as an action/thriller but people get shot so sparingly that it is used for developing character dynamic rather than pure entertainment. McDonagh strikes this otherwise difficult tonal balance to make a film that carefully constructs character with humor. A great example of this is (spoiler alert) when Ken kills himself for getting Ray’s attention about Harry coming to kill him. It isn’t funny that Ken threw himself off the tower, yet the joke is he offers him a mangled gun to defend himself against Harry. It shows that Ken is a good person at heart, he just so happens to kill people for a living, it’s even implied that he took up this line of work as a debt of gratitude to Harry. It is this meticulous character detail that makes them feel more authentic.
If In Bruges proves us anything, it’s that redemption and self-satisfaction can’t come with ease. Judgement comes within our self and our place, like the churches and bars of Bruges are closing in on Ray’s moral self. Unable to enjoy everyday activities or can’t take in mundane sightseeing as if it’s a punishment. On top of Ray’s enormous amount of guilt from the incident, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for him to be diagnosed with depression. It’s eclipsed by the childlike humor but is then integral to uncovering a whole new side of this already entertaining character.
In the end, he realizes he doesn’t want to die once he is shot by Harry, in a final moment of hope or change that there could maybe be redemption within himself. He is a man filled to the brim with deep, buried sadness, but maybe he tried to put others out of their misery so they wouldn’t feel what he was feeling.