In Bruges. 2008. Martin McDonagh, director. Ireland.
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 fuck out of London, youse dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.’ I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was. It’s in Belgium.
Ray arrives in Bruges with Ken. Ken is responsible for recruiting Ray into his present line of work and the two lay low and wait for a call from their boss Harry. The Belgian city ends up not being to the liking of Ray:
Bruges is a shithole.
Bruges is not a shithole.
Bruges is a shithole.
Ray, we’ve only just got off the fucking train. Could we reserve judgment on Bruges until we’ve seen the fucking 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 overcoming his misgivings:
Coming up? Ken invites.
What’s up there?
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 strength of the film lies in the talent of its writer and director. In Bruges is brilliantly humorous and, at other moments, deadly serious and director Martin McDonagh seems to have little difficulty navigating between these tendencies.
The three major characters, I found, make for an interesting study when cast against larger concepts of hell and purgatory and heaven.
Ray, over whom Ken and Harry argue, has committed an act which elicits very little sympathy. Instead of rationalizing what he has done, Ray plunges into depression and believes that only his own punishment – even if self-inflicted – is appropriate. Viewers have suggested understanding Bruges as a sort of Purgatory for Ray. Christianity understands the human person as not identical to what he or she is meant to be. 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”. 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”. Purgatory, in contemporary Catholicism, tends to be emphasized less as a destination point and more as an experience of healing and of being brought into completion. In the remorse of Ray, Ken sees hope for him.
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, Catholics believe, for those who have succeeded in directing themselves toward their own self. Understood in this way, hell becomes not some construction of God intended to punish a person. Hell, rather, describes the utter isolation of a person attempting to radically cut him or herself from the love of God and others. It is an experience, then, of something already existing in the lives of persons on earth. Harry, McDonagh explains, believes that “there is no forgiveness. No getting out of things. A lot of people feel that if something horrible happens then they are doomed forever. What I like are Catholic themes: ‘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 the redemption of Ray. 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 [Ray] and his journey and his evolution. The more that [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”.
In Bruges has an MPAA rating of R for “strong bloody violence, pervasive language and some drug use”.