It’s Ray’s first job as a hitman. He is assigned to kill a priest, and he shoots him in a confessional booth. The priest stumbles out toward the sanctuary, and Ray shoots him again. What he sees when his target finally collapses changes him permanently. The last bullet went through the priest and hit a small boy, praying on his knees, right in the forehead. Ray stands in paralyzed disbelief until his friend and fellow hitman, Ken, rushes in and drags him away.
We don’t see this scene at the beginning of the film. It comes about ten minutes in. The film starts with Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) arriving in Bruges, “the most well preserved medieval town in all of Belgium”. We don’t know why they’re there, and neither do they. They’ve been told to go there by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out and await instructions. Ken, who loves history and beauty and seems entirely too nice to kill people for a living, decides to make the best of it and drags Ray all over the ancient town looking at landmarks and exploring canals. Ray, who was born in Dublin and loves Dublin, has no interest in being in Bruges.
Ray is what might have once been called simple, which he is anything but. He is not in the least mentally handicapped, but he doesn’t quite seem confortable in the thoughts, conversations and skin of an adult. He is a grown child. He is fascinated by midgets, desperately wants to bed a girl he finds in Bruges, Chloe (the ethereal Clemence Poesy), and is tormented, when his attention span allows for it, by the inescapable truth that he has killed a child. It is now, as it certainly would be, the defining fact of his life.
In an art gallery Ray and Ken stare at The Last Judgment and its depiction of the torments of hell, and discuss eternal punishment. Purgatory, Ray explains, means “You weren’t really shite, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham.” This segues into a conversation on a bench overlooking a canal, in which Ray expresses his anguish over what he’s done. “I’ll always have killed that boy,” he says through tears. “So save the next one,” Ken offers. It isn’t much, and Ray knows it. What matters more is that Ken genuinely cares. These are the most good-hearted assassins who have ever lived, yet as outrageous as they are, against all odds they seem plausible, which is the mark of any good fictional character.
Ray is among the best conceived and executed characters of cinema in recent memory. He is a one-off original, and defies appropriate description. He is goofy but he isn’t a clown; tender-hearted but completely insensitive; a screw-up who proves quite competent when necessary; a charmer who is always sticking his foot in his mouth; a loyal friend who will piss you off with no warning. He seems incapable of lying. And Colin Farrell, an actor who seems to bleed arrogance and presumption in many other roles, brings him to life with more truth and vigor than would have seemed possible. He IS Ray, and he has changed my mind about his career. The fact he didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for striking the perfect note with this mischievious criminal with a child’s heart is further proof that Oscar voters have their heads up their asses.
We are privy to a phone call that sets the remaining plot into motion. Ray, who is about to go crazy in the hitmen’s small hotel room waiting for their boss to call, goes on a date with Chloe (hilarity ensues, but I don’t have space for it here), and Ken waits for Harry to ring. He does, and in the course of a six minute unbroken tracking shot that reaffirms Brendan Gleeson as one of the treasures of modern film, we find out why Ken and Ray have been sent to Bruges. Harry wanted to “do something nice for the boy” before Ken kills him, which he is to do at the earliest possible convenience. “You can’t kill a kid and expect to get away with it,” Harry offers. Harry is, among other things, a man of principle. Ken is now torn between following his boss’s order and killing his friend, or protecting Ray and probably getting knocked off himself for disobeying. After a brief series of events, he chooses the latter.
He puts Ray on a train going God knows where (none of the characters do), and calls Harry to tell him about it. He tells him he knows Harry’s going to have to do what he has to do, but he just couldn’t go through with it, because Ray still has the capacity to change. Harry can’t have that and heads to Bruges to kill Ken. What neither of them know is that Ray ends up back there himself. It seems he can’t escape the Belgian city.
I suppose it’s time now to discuss Bruges itself, because it’s as much a character in the story as any of its inhabitants and visitors. Writer and director Martin McDonagh achieves a sense of place that is found far too infrequently in modern films. Like Tokyo in Sofia Coppola’s brilliant Lost in Translation, we are aware that this story could not take place anywhere but just where it does. Bruges comes to represent a variety of things to the characters, but to Ray it is purgatory, a place he is stuck waiting, alone with his guilt, wondering what comes next, not as bad as it could be but not where he wants to be. He would take hell and punishment over this unresolved existence. He says as much in the final words of the movie.
After all I’ve explained, there really is no need to detail the resolution of the plot for you. Some characters die, some character live. Most of both get shot. It ends just how it should, which is to say it leaves us waiting and wondering, just like Ray.
Despite what I’ve said so far, this is among the funniest movies I’m aware of. The balance achieved between the weight of its themes and the levity of its dialogue is astonishing. It is irreverant and crude, but never trashy, poignant and ponderous but never mopey. McDonagh is a screenwriter and director to be reckoned with if his first feature is any indication. Eigil Bryld’s cinematography is breathtaking and haunting but never distracting, pulling the gorgeous setting down to the characters rather than lifting our attention away from them, except where Bruges becomes a character itself. And the minor part played by excellent French actor Jeremie Renier (you know him from some recent Dardenne Brothers’ films) is priceless.
There is a scene near the end of In Bruges that has always bothered me. Harry is chasing Ray with intent to shoot him, and Ray leaps onto a small barge on a canal. Harry spots him and levels his handgun. Rather than lying flat or hanging over the side of the barge or jumping into the canal itself, Ray turns and faces Harry directly. He gets shot, right in the abdomen. Why didn’t he try to hide, protect himself? For a long time it seemed like a needless concession to the requirements of the plot, but it has occurred to me recently that Ray, in his troubled conscience, though he’s been running from Harry, wants to be shot. He’s tried to kill himself once already and was thwarted, and now, though he’s put up a fight, realizes this might just be the best way to go out. It’s what he thinks he deserves. He takes the hit, and he continues the chase. He doesn’t really want to die, but he knows his guilt will not go away any other way. He finds no answer to the dilemna, and his ambivalence throughout the film is one of the great moral explorations of modern cinema.