‘In Bruges’: A Reaction
After I killed them, Ray narrates, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through: ‘Get the f— out of London, youse dumb f—s. Get to Bruges.’ I didn’t even know where Bruges f—ing was. It’s in Belgium.
Ray arrives in Bruges with Ken, the person responsible for recruiting him into his present line of work, and the two men lay low and wait for a call from Harry, their boss. The Belgian city ends up not being to Ray’s liking. He remarks to Ken:Bruges is a shithole. Bruges is not a shithole. Bruges is a shithole. Ray, we’ve only just got off the f—ing train. Could we reserve judgment on Bruges until we’ve seen the f—ing place? I know it’s gonna be a shithole.
While Ken is fascinated by Bruges, and uses the furlough to enjoy the aesthetic and cultural aspects of the city, Ray has more difficulty in overcoming his initial misgivings.Coming up? What’s up there? The view. The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that down here. Ray, you are about the worst tourist in the whole world.
The film features excellent performances from Brendan Gleeson (as Ken), Colin Farrell (as Ray), and Ralph Fiennes (as Harry). The strength of the film lies also in the talent of its writer and director, Martin McDonagh. In Bruges is the first feature length screenplay for the Irish playwright, and it earned McDonagh an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay in 2008. In Bruges is at moments brilliantly humorous and at other moments deadly serious and McDonagh seems to have no difficulty navigating between these tendencies.
Ray, Ken and Harry make for an interesting study, especially when cast against larger concepts of hell, purgatory and heaven, and the direction each seems headed. We, perhaps, know that certain actions we commit have seemingly little impact on either ourselves or the world. What I have chosen to wear today or will have for lunch seems not, for example, to have cosmic consequence. Choosing the country in which I will reside, or where I will make my home, or the profession, religion or partner to which I will commit my life can have a substantial and more lasting impact. Even more important: Who am I going to become as a person? What values will I choose to live by? How do I deal with those aspects of myself and the world that I cannot change? How do I treat those I love, and respond to the needs of those around me?
Becoming the persons we become takes place in the concrete choices we make throughout life. The capacity for good or for evil, or for love or for hate grows in particular actions of good and evil and love and hate. While a person should not, I think, be reduced to any single action he or she performs, nor even the sum of all his or her past actions, in another important way, the choices a person makes, taken together as a whole, indicates a sort of direction towards which the deepest core of our person is oriented. A basic attitude exists towards oneself, towards others and towards God, and this informs subsequent decisions.
Towards what have each Ray, Ken and Harry oriented themselves? A conversation between Harry and Ken illustrates the difference Ken perceives between the two persons he is caught between. Harry argues:If I’d [done what Ray did], accidentally or otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I’d have killed myself on the f—ing spot! On the f—ing spot! I’d have put the gun to my head on the f—ing spot. But that’s you, Harry. The boy has the capacity to change. The boy has the capacity to do something decent with his life. Excuse me, Ken. I have the capacity to change. Yeah, you do. You’ve got the capacity to get f—ing worse.
The man Ray, over whom the two argue, has committed an act which elicits very little sympathy. However, instead of rationalizing what he has done, Ray plunges into depression and believes that only his own punishment (even if self-inflicted) is appropriate. A number have suggested understanding Bruges as a sort of Purgatory for Ray. Christians understand the human person as being far from what he or she is meant to be and in the New Testament the claim is made that “the one [Jesus] who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).” Viewing an artistic depiction of the Last Judgment, Ray recalls Purgatory being intended for those “who weren’t really shit, but weren’t all that great either,” but Purgatory is not so much a destination point as it is the experience of healing, and the being brought into completion. In Ray’s remorse, Ken sees hope, whereas in Harry, Ken sees only the capacity to get worse.
Perhaps Harry is best seen as inhabiting a sort of Hell. Hell maintains a distinct possibility, many believe, for those who have succeeded in directing themselves towards their own self (and away from those around them and God). Understood in this way, hell becomes not some construction of God intended to punish a person. Hell cannot be seen as apart from the individual person as it describes the utter isolation of the one who attempts to radically cut him or herself off from the love of God and others. It is something already experienced in the lives of persons on earth. With Harry, writer and director Martin McDonagh explains, you have a character who believes that “if you’ve done a wrong there is no forgiveness. There’s no getting out of it, you know, which is the way a lot of people feel if something that’s horrible happens. You’re doomed forever. I guess what I like is the Catholic themes of ‘Can you be forgiven? Can you forgive yourself? Can you be redeemed?’ That’s what I wanted to explore.”
Somewhere else along this spectrum, which includes hell and purgatory, travels Ken. The story is as much about his own quest for redemption as it is about Ray’s. Ken tells Ray that “at the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile myself to the fact that, yes, I have killed people.” McDonagh notes: “Originally I thought that the whole story was about Colin’s character [Ray] and his journey and his evolution, but the more that Brendan [Gleeson's character Ken] brought to it, the more it became a level view of two guys seeking the same thing. I think that’s why the film works. Hopefully.”
It works (although the trailer doesn’t so skip to the film).
I have also posted my reaction to “In Bruges” here.