Profanity and major spoilers ahead
In some films, the setting is as important as the protagonists. A paradigm case of this is Martin McDonagh’s 2008 black comedy In Bruges. If I had to describe the three main characters, I would say they are 1) Ray (Colin Farrell), a novice hitman who has accidentally killed a choirboy, 2) Ken (Brendon Gleeson), an experienced hired gun who is sent to accompany him to 3) Bruges (Bruges), “the most well preserved medieval city in the whole of Belgium.” There they are to wait for further instructions, and perhaps do some sightseeing in the meantime.
Bruges dominates the film, with its angular towers, cobblestone streets, winding canals, and medieval relics. From the beginning, Ray hates it – his first line of dialogue is “Bruges is a shithole.” Throughout the film, he berates the picturesque town: “If I'd grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn't, so it doesn't.” At first, we don’t understand why Ray hates it so much. Bruges is like a Flemish Venice, and it certainly possesses an air of mystery and magic, frequently described in the film as a “fairytale town.” As the story progresses, though, the town’s charm begins to suffocate the audience. Like Ray, we feel the urge to escape from the endless maze of cobblestone streets, to break free into the wide open. Bruges begins to feel like a medieval prison, one from which we will never leave.
And we never do leave it.
But let’s backtrack. To understand the meaning of the most important character of the film, Bruges, we must first understand our human characters. Who are they? Ray is like a fifteen-year-old boy stuck in a thirty-year-old hitman’s body – he is antsy, profane, and complains all the time. He likes sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, all of which he finds in Bruges (they are hidden beneath the town’s quaint exterior). Ken provides a narrative counterpoint. He’s older, with the energy of a tourist dad genuinely excited to learn about the rich history of Bruges. The dichotomy between them fuels most of the comedy of the film, because they really do sound like a bickering father and son on a vacation. Ken asks if Ray wants to go to the top of a historic tower:
“What’s up there?”
“The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that from down here.”
Ray is a more complex character than he initially appears to be, though. Thirty minutes into the film he breaks down in tears, saying, “I killed a little boy. He’s dead because of me. And I been trying to get me head around it, but I can’t. I will always have killed that little boy. That ain’t never going away. Ever. Unless…maybe I go away.” Evidently, the weight of the trauma he carries around is burdening his soul, and manifesting itself in other ways. That night, when he engages in a series of debauched escapades involving cocaine, sex and violence with a local drug dealer, we understand that he is not merely a thrill-seeker or a hedonist. He’s trying to distract his mind by overstimulating it; drowning out the crushing remorse with intoxication and adrenaline. We no longer see him as an obnoxious 15-year-old.
I’ve often longed for more movies about the human experience of guilt. Every year, hundreds of movies are released about people who murder and wrong others, yet very few of these characters ever seem to feel the overwhelming regret I would feel if I ever did those things. I feel guilty when I say something rude to someone; imagine the feeling that Ray must deal with knowing that he has robbed an innocent child of his life. It would be overwhelming and inescapable.
Ken tries to comfort Ray by pointing out that it was an accident, and that the only people he’s ever killed on purpose were guilty. This fails to assuage Ray’s worries. As he points out, regardless of his intentions, the boy is still dead because of something he did. His action is forever stamped onto the world, and brushing it under the rug by saying it was an accident doesn’t make it go away. Ray fantasizes about visiting the mother of the child he killed and accepting any punishment she bestows upon him – prison, death, anything. He is begging the world for something to wash away the damned spot.
Now that we have examined Ray’s psychology, we can move to that mysterious third protagonist of the film: Bruges. My best interpretation of Bruges is that it is Ray’s guilt. Earlier I said that the more time the audience spends in Bruges, the more it feels like a prison. I also described Ray’s guilt as overwhelming and inescapable. Notice any similarities?
Once we view the story from this lens, it achieves a greater thematic and narrative coherence. Ray is stationed in Bruges (his own guilt) for a short period of time, yet he has the creeping feeling that he will never be able to leave. It’s not so bad initially – everyone feels guilt after they do something wrong – but it becomes a terrifying prospect once he realizes that his soul will eternally be burdened with this pain. About an hour in, Ray actually gets on a train leaving the town. Just as the train is pulling away, the police come to arrest him for a crime he committed earlier in the film. “We’re taking you back to Bruges,” says the police officer. “Brilliant,” snipes Ray, aware of the meta-narrative irony of his own life. Of course he is going back to Bruges. Nobody can ever leave.
In Bruges is laden with references to medieval religious imagery. Ray and Ken visit a church with a rag said to be soaked in Jesus’ blood. Next, they visit an art museum and study a Hieronymus Bosch painting called “The Last Judgment,” in which humans are brutally tortured and killed for their earthly sins.
Transfixed by the painting, Ray gives his home-brewed rundown of the Christian afterlife: “Purgatory’s kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either.” This scene lends the film medieval Christian overtones of judgment, sinning and punishment, implying that Bruges is a kind of hell. Pope John Paul II said that the Bible uses "a symbolic language" when it speaks of Hell as a place, which "must be correctly interpreted … Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy." That being said, humans have always represented hell spatially, from the Greeks to the Muslims to the Christians, and so does McDonagh. By representing hell/guilt as a medieval town rife with Dark Age religious imagery, Ray’s crisis is bound to the dark, gruesome history of Catholic guilt. Even the choirboy Ray shot was in church begging God to be forgiven for his sins when Ray killed him.
Bruges is a fairytale town. Ray was sent there by his boss to give him some nice dreams before he dies, specifically because Bruges feels unreal. It was intended to be unreal in the way a pleasant dream is, but it instead becomes hellishly unreal, a fever dream.
In the blood-spattered finale of the film, Ray has been wounded, and is being carried off on an ambulance stretcher. As the Boschian masks of a local film crew glare down at him ghoulishly like God’s messengers on Judgment Day, Ray informs the audience in voiceover, “I really really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really really hoped I wouldn’t die.” Some critics have concluded that in those final moments he has found a new lust for life – he has suddenly discovered meaning in life and wants to live another day to enjoy it.
I read the ending in a much darker way. He doesn’t want to die because if he dies, he will be stuck in Bruges forever. As he bleeds out on the stretcher, he desperately holds on to his dream of one day being free of his guilt. McDonagh leaves it ambiguous, closing the film exactly where it started – in Bruges.