In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh, 2012) – Two professional hitmen are instructed to hide out and await instructions in Bruges, after a mishandled job in London.
Martin McDonagh’s directorial debut explores the difficult themes of sin and redemption, turning in a beautifully written film that is hilarious and moving in equal parts.
It is about time I write about In Bruges, one of my all-time favourite films and the perfect introduction to Martin McDonagh, whose brilliant storytelling career traces back to theatre. Even in his twenties, the respected playwright had already produced several acclaimed tragicomedies on stage, as funny as they are heartbreaking.
Delving into the darker side of humanity, his works have been known to be controversial. Many of his characters possess a predisposition to violence, some more callous than others. This is seen in his 2004 film debut Six Shooter, where a recent widower finds an unexpected connection with a disturbed young man – in their grief. For that, he deservingly won his first Academy Award for Best Short Film.
It is not until four years later when he made his first full-length feature, which earned him more attention in Hollywood. In Bruges saw Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson at their careers best as Ray and Ken, two professional hitmen forced to lie low in the city of Belgium, after a job had gone horribly wrong.
Bruges serves as a proverbial purgatory for Ray, who awaits sentencing by crime boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) for his reprehensible mistake of killing a child. It is right before Christmas too. The setting is almost poetic, evoking poignancy in how the permanence of guilt can cast a shadow on the most beautiful things.
There is much to be read in their layered characterisation. Anguish follows Ray as much as it does Ken, who is unable to find peace even for the crimes he had gotten away with in the past. Their conversations are telling. No matter how much they try to lead a good life, they are haunted by fact that they have both committed murder for money.
But the two men vary in their definitions of sin and redemption. While Ray struggles with thoughts of suicide, Ken does not believe that death will deliver him from sin. “Just go away somewhere, get out of this business, and try to do something good,” he says to Ray. “You’re not going to help anybody dead.”
McDonagh’s screenplay proves thought-provoking on its lofty themes of morality, while also constantly playing on expectations. His strength is humour, too. The adept writer intersperses the gravity of the situation with genuinely funny moments, including Ray’s fascination with the dwarfism of Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), and Harry’s profanity-ridden exchanges with Ken.
Levity never overcomes the tragedy of the unfolding events in his artful narrative. Retribution is always close at hand, beauty pit against death in perfect juxtaposition. Even when Ray meets Chloe (Clémence Poésy) and falls in love, she appears less of a lover for him than something to lose. It is no surprise that McDonagh earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay that year, only that he lost it.
Mounting uncertainty surrounds Ray’s eventual fate, and there is no companion more perfect in all of this than Carter Burwell’s lyrical score. Against his compositions melodious yet sombre, it becomes all the more evocative and heartrending to watch, as the rivers of Bruges inevitably run red.