Analysis of ‘In Bruges’

In Bruges is a 2008 British/American black comedy written and directed by Martin McDonagh. It stars Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes.

As the film’s title indicates, the story is set in Bruges, Belgium, where two Irish hitmen, Ray and Ken (Farrell and Gleeson, respectively), are sent by their boss, Harry (Fiennes), on a ‘vacation’ of sorts, until Ken is given instructions by Harry to buy a gun there and kill Ray for accidentally killing a boy while doing a job.

The film earned Farrell the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, while Gleeson was nominated in the same category. McDonagh won the BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Here are some quotes:

[first lines] Ray: After I killed them, 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. [pause] It’s in Belgium.

“Bruges is a shithole.” –Ray

“I like it here.” –Ken, to himself, at the top of the tower and overlooking the city

Overweight Man: Been to the top of the tower?
Ray: Yeah… yeah, it’s rubbish.
Overweight Man: It is? The guide book says it’s a must-see.
Ray: Well you lot ain’t going up there.
Overweight Man: Pardon me? Why?
Ray: I mean, it’s all winding stairs. I’m not being funny.
Overweight Man: What exactly are you trying to say?
Ray: What exactly am I trying to say? Youse a bunch of fuckin’ elephants.
[overweight man attempts to chase Ray around but quickly grows tired]
Ray: Come on, leave it fatty!
[the overweight women calm down the overweight man]
Overweight Woman #2: [to Ray] You know you’re just the rudest man. The rudest man!
Ken: [coming back from the tower] What’s all that about? [Ray shrugs] They’re not going up there. [to overweight family] Hey, guys. I wouldn’t go up there. It’s really narrow.
Overweight Woman #2: Screw you, motherfucker!
Ray: Americans, isn’t it?

“What are they doing over there? They’re filming something. They’re filming midgets!” –Ray

Canadian Guy: I don’t care if this is the smoking section, all right? She directed it right in my face, man! I don’t wanna die just because of your fucking arrogance!
Ray: [thinking the tourist is American] Uh huh, is that what the Vietnamese used to say?

[beating the Canadian guy, whom he believes to be American] “That’s for John Lennon, you Yankee fuckin’ cunt!” –Ray

Ken: You from the States?
Jimmy: Yeah. But don’t hold it against me.
Ken: I’ll try not to…Just try not to say anything too loud or crass.

Jimmy: There’s gonna be a war, man. I can see it. There’s gonna be a war between the blacks and between the whites. You ain’t even gonna need a uniform no more. This ain’t gonna be a war where you pick your side. Your side’s already picked for you.
Ray: And I know whose side I’m fighting on. I’m fighting with the blacks. The whites are gonna get their heads kicked in!
Jimmy: You don’t decide this shit, man.
Ray: Well, who are the half-castes gonna fight with?
Jimmy: The blacks, man. That’s obvious.
Ray: What about the Pakistanis?
Jimmy: The blacks.
Ray: What about…Think of a hard one. What about the Vietnamese?
Jimmy: The blacks!
Ray: Well, I’m definitely fighting with the blacks if they’ve got the Vietnamese. [pause] So, hang on. Would all of the white midgets in the world be fighting against all the black midgets in the world?
Jimmy: Yeah.
Ray: That would make a good film!
Jimmy: You don’t know how much shit I’ve had to take off of black midgets, man.

Ken: [looking at a surreal Bosch painting] It’s Judgment Day, you know?
Ray: No. What’s that then?
Ken: Well, it’s, you know, the final day on Earth, when mankind will be judged for the crimes they’ve committed and that.
Ray: Oh. And see who gets into heaven and who gets into hell and all that.
Ken: Yeah. And what’s the other place?
Ray: Purgatory.
Ken: Purgatory…what’s that?
Ray: Purgatory’s kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham. [pause] Do you believe in all that stuff, Ken?
Ken: About Tottenham?

Ken: And at the same time, at the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile myself with the fact that, yes, I have killed people. Not many people. And most of them were not very nice people. Apart from one person.
Ray: Who was that?
Ken: This fellow Danny Aliband’s brother. He was just trying to protect his brother. Like you or I would. He was just a lollipop man. But he came at me with a bottle. What are you gonna do? I shot him down.

“The little boy…” –priest, after having been shot by Ray

“It’s a fairytale fucking town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, and all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?” –Harry, to Ken on the phone in the hotel

“I know I’m awake, but I feel like I’m in a dream.” –Ken, pretending Ray has said it

“Do you know what that is? Yeah, I know you know it’s a train. Do you know what train? Well, it’s a train that Ray just got on, and he’s alive and he’s well, and he doesn’t know where he’s going and neither do I. So if you need to do your worst, do your worst. You’ve got the address of the hotel. I’ll be here waiting. Because I’ve got to quite like Bruges, now. It’s like a fucking fairytale or something.” –Ken, at the train station, on the phone with Harry

Natalie: [Harry gets angry and is destroying the phone; his wife approaches him, saying:] Harry. Harry! It’s an inanimate fucking object!
Harry: [to wife] You’re an inanimate fuckin’ object!

“When I phoned you yesterday, did I ask you, ‘Ken, will you do me a favour and become Ray’s psychiatrist, please?’ No. What I think I asked you was, ‘Could you go blow his fucking head off for me?'” –Harry, to Ken

“You’ve got to stick to your principles.” –Harry, before shooting himself in the head

“There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison… death… didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in fuckin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges. And I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die.” –Ray, last lines

Central themes in this film are sin, grace, and, legalism, or the demand to measure up to moral standards, the failure to do so resulting in punishment (e.g., death). Added to these themes is the dialectical relationship between sin, grace, and legalism.

More dialectics are seen in how Bruges, a quaint, “fairy-tale” kind of town, full of old churches, can be seen to embrace elements of both heaven and hell. Frequent references are made to paintings by Hieronymus Bosch on such subjects as hell and the Last Judgement.

Ray’s one hit job is to shoot a priest in the confessional. Ironically, Ray gives his confession before killing his confessor. After putting bullets through the chest of the priest, who is staggering out of the confession box, Ray hears him say, “The little boy…” before dropping down dead. Once on the floor, the priest no longer is obscuring Ray’s vision: one of his bullets has grazed a boy’s forehead.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which conveys the image of “missing the mark.” The irony in Ray’s sin is in his hitting the mark all too well. One of the bullets has gone right through the priest’s body, then flies past and hits the boy. In grazing his forehead, it has ‘missed the mark’ (i.e., not gone through the middle of his head), but hit him well enough to kill him. In killing the innocent, Ray has sinned.

This missing the mark vs. hitting it all too well should also be understood dialectically, for it symbolizes the dialectical relationship, discussed above, between sin and theological legalism, the strident demand to fulfill lofty moral standards. Recall that in ancient Greek tragedy, hamartia also means ‘tragic flaw,’ which in Harry’s case refers to his proud insistence that killing a child, even accidentally, is punishable only by death…even if he were to commit the sin himself.

Sins of all shapes and sizes are committed in quaint, churchy, fairy-tale Bruges. These sins range from the mildest (rudeness, four-letter words, etc.) to the harshest (murder and suicide), and everything in between (anger, fighting, racism, tactlessness towards dwarfs, drug use and trafficking, soliciting prostitutes, theft, etc.).

Ray, guilty of most of these sins, finds Bruges to be a “shithole,” even to the point of imagining an eternity in the town to be the very definition of hell, as he muses at the end of the film. It’s only natural that he’d think that way: all those churches have been reminding him of his sins.

St. Paul, in Romans, chapter seven, wrote of how the Mosaic Law inevitably leads to sin, since no one can reasonably be expected to follow the Torah to the letter all the time. This excess adherence to the Law, or hitting the mark all too well, inevitably leads to missing the mark, as described above when Ray has literally hit the mark by killing the priest, and has metaphorically missed the mark by killing the boy in the church, the bullet grazing his forehead.

As I’ve stated in many posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme opposite, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and its coiled body is a circular continuum between those opposites. Excessive adherence to legalism, or hitting the mark too well, is the serpent’s biting head, which shifts over to the bitten tail of missing the mark, sinning, accidentally killing a boy, or a dwarf, leading to suicidal ideation, if not committing it, the unforgivable sin of despair.

Ray and Ken go to the Belfry of Bruges, the top of which gives a beautiful, heavenly view of the town. Ray isn’t interested, so Ken goes up alone. Three obese American tourists ask Ray about the building; but he advises them not to try going in and up the narrow, steep staircase, bluntly saying they’re too fat to fit inside. The man among the three is infuriated, and he pathetically swings punches at Ray, who of course can easily dodge them; then the man quickly tires. In his anger at Ray’s rudeness, he has missed the mark.

Now, going up those stairs reminds me of Milton‘s words: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 432-433) While it is unfair to judge the overweight by claiming that their obesity is merely because of indulgence in the deadly sin of gluttony (there is the factor of a genetic predisposition to obesity, or overeating could be a manic defence against facing one’s unhappiness), we can see the obesity of these three tourists, unable to climb that staircase “that out of hell leads up to light,” in terms of the movie’s theme of sin.

Later, Ray notices some people making a film, and one of the actors is a dwarf. Ray is fascinated, almost fixated, on the dwarf. He imagines that, because of the difficulties dwarfs face in life, that they must have a high suicide rate; he cites Hervé Villechaize as an example.

The dwarf, Jimmy (played by Jordan Prentice), as can clearly be seen by the end of the movie, is a double of the boy Ray has accidentally killed. He has transferred his guilt feelings towards the boy onto Jimmy, by on the one hand suggesting a concern that Jimmy might one day kill himself (Ray would try to stop Jimmy from dying, since he cannot bring back the boy he killed), and on the other hand annoying him by tactlessly dwelling on the subject with him and making him self-conscious (i.e., going from hurting the boy by killing him, to hurting a dwarf by reminding him of his condition). By discussing suicide with Jimmy, Ray is also projecting his own suicide ideation onto him.

Among those on the movie set, someone else has caught Ray’s eye, a young Belgian woman, Chloë (played by Clémence Poésy), whom he finds attractive. Since she sells drugs and robs tourists sometimes with her ex-boyfriend, Eirik (played by Jérémie Renier), she is a fellow sinner, so Ray can feel all the more comfortable with her. Iniquity loves company.

The very nature of having a job as a hitman is inherently alienating; and as I’ve discussed many times before, the mafia can be seen as symbolic of capitalists. Harry, Ray’s and Ken’s mob boss, wants the latter to kill the former, thus reinforcing their sense of worker alienation; but Chloë’s entrance into his life can be a cure to his estrangement from society…and to his suicidal ideation. (While we’re on the subject of Harry representing the evils of capitalism, there’s a deleted scene in which we learn the reason for him wanting Ray to kill the priest: he was opposed to a housing project Harry was working on, so killing him would help the business go through unobstructed.)

Being judgemental of others typically leads to more sin, as we see in the restaurant scene, when Ray gets into a fight with two Canadians over Chloë’s smoking, then Ray mistakes the Canadians for Americans by collectively judging the latter nationality for the killing of Vietnamese…and John Lennon.

Unless one becomes as little children, one shall never enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3. Children are the innocent, the angelic, and therefore inviolable, as Harry sees them. This in part is surely why the only time in the film that we see the bad-tempered mob boss actually smiling is at his children at home.

Jimmy, though a double of the boy Ray killed (see above), doesn’t share children’s innocence the way he shares their short stature, as is revealed in his bizarre, racist prediction of a war between blacks and whites…in which, of course, all people of colour, including Asians and even those partly white, are lumped together with “the blacks.” In his physical association with children (especially in that schoolboy uniform we see him in towards the end of the film), and in his not-so-innocent attitude, we see another dialectical unity between sin and grace.

As unapologetically uncouth as Ray is, he is tearfully remorseful over his killing, however accidental, of the boy in the church. Here we see a dialectical relationship between penitence and impenitence, and thus between sin and grace once again, since it is penitence that leads the sinner to grace. To “sin boldly,” as Luther advised, is to admit to oneself how badly one needs the redemption of Christ.

In this connection, we can see Ken as a Christ figure. First, Ken defies Harry’s order to kill Ray, thus repudiating his boss’s legalism (‘capital punishment’ for Ray, as Harry would see it, but murder to everyone else, hence we see dialectics in Harry’s ‘illegal legalism,’ if you will). Ken doesn’t go through with shooting Ray, just as the latter is about to shoot himself, then gets upset at the sight of the gun in the former’s hand! Ken then takes away Ray’s gun, and later puts Ray on a train to leave Bruges so Harry can’t find him; for Ken wants Ray to have a chance at redemption, to try to live a good life.

As Christ said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

When Harry arrives in Bruges, he argues with Ken over whether Ray should be forgiven. One is reminded of Portia‘s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained…” Ken is prepared to be shot and killed by Harry; at the top of the belfry, Ken won’t pick up a gun and try to stop Harry from killing him. He’s shot twice by Harry, in the leg and in the neck, but he isn’t killed…Harry hasn’t hit the mark he wanted to (he also compares Ken to Robert Powell in his portrayal of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth). Harry begins helping Ken down the staircase.

When Harry is tipped off by Eirik as to where Ray is (just outside with Chloë), Harry runs out of the belfry. Ken limps his way back up that difficult, narrow staircase, reminding me of the flagellation of bleeding Christ in His passion, when He wears the crown of thorns and struggles to carry His cross during the Stations (in particular, 2, 3, 7, and 9). Ken returns to the top and lets himself fall off the edge, so he can warn Ray in time about Harry. Like Christ, Ken dies so a sinner can live.

Harry chases Ray back to his hotel, which is co-owned by a pregnant woman named Marie (played by Thekla Reuten). She refuses to step aside and let Harry run up the stairs and shoot Ray in his room. We should note that the story is set near Christmas: in an earlier scene, Marie is seen decorating a tree.

Since it is taboo for Harry to harm a child, he cannot force his way past Marie. Here we see more Christian symbolism: she is like Mary, pregnant with the Christ-child, soon to give birth to the Saviour who will redeem us from the harshness of religious legalism. Even a “cunt” like Harry won’t brutalize a pregnant woman. (In keeping with Marie’s association with the Virgin, we never see the father of the unborn baby.)

Ray escapes the hotel by jumping onto a boat going down the nearby canal. Harry runs out, sees Ray on the boat, and fires, hitting Ray just below his heart. Harry has hit the mark all too well…but Ray isn’t dead.

He gets off the boat and staggers over to the film set, where a dream sequence is being filmed using costuming inspired by imagery from Bosch’s paintings of hell and the Last Judgement. Recall Ken’s remark about Bruges being like a dream, claiming that Ray said it; recall also Hamlet‘s words, “To die, to sleep;–/To sleep, perchance to dream,” when the Dane is contemplating suicide.

Harry follows Ray to the film set, and fires a few more bullets in Ray’s back. Ray echoes the priest’s words, “The little boy,” only he’s looking at Jimmy in that schoolboy uniform…with his head blown to pieces from one of the dumdums that ‘dumdum’ Harry got from Yuri (played by Eric Godon).

Because Jimmy’s head has been blown apart, Harry doesn’t know that he’s accidentally killed a dwarf instead of a little boy. When Ray killed the boy in the church, the bullet grazed his head: Ray almost missed the mark; actually and ironically, he missed missing the mark. Harry’s shot has hit the mark all too well–if only he’d missed it! Again, we see the dialectics of sin and innocence.

Harry’s moral legalism about killing kids is his undoing, his tragic flaw, his hamartia, his missing of the mark by hitting it all too well. He can never forgive himself for what seems to be the killing of a boy, and so he puts his gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger before Ray can get a chance to tell him he’s killed a dwarf…actually, one lacking in innocence, as we’ve seen above.

Harry’s rash judgement of himself is illustrative of the cruel nature of the moralistic superego, which gives us all a merciless inner critic. Kleinians consider the superego to be a split-off part of the ego, with a projected death instinct as well as a life instinct. If not modified and integrated with the rest of the personality, the superego can grow from being very severe to being associated with extreme disturbance and even psychosis. Such pathology can be seen in Harry, who imagines his morality to be superior in wanting child-killers to be killed, even those who don’t mean to kill children…but he’s also OK with killing priests who oppose his business interests.

As Ray is carried off on a stretcher, he imagines Bruges to be the very definition of hell (all those Bosch-costumed actors do nothing to dissuade him from such a conclusion). Yet he also sees Chloë and Marie, two angelic figures that should remind him of how Bruges is actually the dialectic dream of the “sleep of death,” a marriage of heaven and hell. Like “in-betweeny” Purgatory.

He ought to have Marie pray for him now, at the hour of his death.

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