It may seem willfully perverse to find a Pauline exploration of justification in Martin McDonagh’s bloody, black comedy In Bruges. But McDonagh is no stranger to crafting complex faith narratives for the selfish, profane, and violent characters of his imaginary Ireland. In Bruges is McDonagh’s first feature film, and it admirably translates into cinema his preoccupations with intimacy among brutal people and spirituality among the godless. More than his previous works, In Bruges investigates the problem of the law and its devastating effects upon lawless men yearning for grace.
The law-grace combine so crucial to Christianity, and especially to Lutheran thought, takes on a pointed character in McDonagh’s world of Irish hitmen on the lam. Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are mismatched criminal partners, the former young and cocky, the latter aging and paunchy. They know little of their assignment, only that Harry their boss (Ralph Fiennes) has sent them to Belgium to the medieval town of Bruges where they are encouraged to sight-see and relax and await his phonecall for further instructions. Ken finds himself at peace absorbing the paintings and architecture away from the bustle of the London underworld and its unpleasant duties. Ray finds himself going stir crazy, desperate for a nightlife of booze and girls, hungry for the action of his bloody job, and annoyed at the vagueness of their assignment and his partner’s passivity.
We soon discover that Ray's edginess and boredom have less to do with his thrill-seeking desires than with an aching conscience that throbs whenever his mind starts to rest. Bruges offers little distraction for Ray's uneasy soul,and visions of one particularly horrible assignment that he botched becomes the insistent subtext in all of his complaints. Though these characters live outside the civic legal system—at least until they are caught—their internal sense of the Law nearly cripples them. Bruges becomes Rays purgatory and a place of torment like that depicted in The Last Judgment triptych by Hieronymous Bosch which they view in Bruges's Groeninge Museum.
One subplot of In Bruges involves a film crew making what one character describes as a “trumped up Euro-trash” art film where Bosch’s creepy creatures and tortured souls come alive. An American little person named Jimmy (Jordan Prentice) who has a starring role in the Bosch film befriends the two hitmen and provides Ray an entry point into the Last Judgment-style fantasia of the final sequence. Ray’s own body receives wounds that mimic the injured bodies in the Bosch triptych—a clever touch that emphasizes the spiritual dimension of McDonagh’s crime narrative. The name of the town itself—Bruges—comes from an old Scandinavian word “bryggia” meaning “port” or “landing.” Most obviously this refers to the many waterways through the town and its importance for medieval Europeans, but it also suggests a passageway for Ray who finds himself caught in a state of judgment and uncertain of his ultimate destination.
Ray is wracked with guilt not for his countless crimes but for one grim bit of excessive violence that I will refrain from describing here. Surprisingly, his own moral code, which ought by all accounts to be nil, is violated, and he is without a means for atoning. Ken attempts to pronounce forgiveness upon him, but this attempt is pointedly futile. The standard rationalizations—that everyone makes mistakes, that they are men of a rough life bound to incur casualties, even that there is no heaven or hell and thus no ultimate consequences for any action—all prove unfit solutions for the problem of Ray’s conscience. His sin is inescapable and he is painfully aware of his imprisonment.
This dilemma perfectly exemplifies the problem that concerned St. Paul. As Krister Stendah has observed in his famous essay Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Fortress, 1976), Paul investigated “justification rather than forgiveness.” Rather than the psychological problem of guilt and the human-centered activity of being forgiven, Paul describe the God-centered notion of justification which is cosmic in scope. As Stendahl puts it,
Paul's thoughts about justification were triggered by the issues of divisions and identities in a pluralistic and torn world, not primarily by the inner tensions of individual souls and consciences. His searching eyes focused on the unity and the God-willed diversity of humankind, yes, of the whole creation.
Ray cannot be released from his guilt simply by being forgiven. He requires instead a realignment of his whole being with the law that judges him.
McDonagh is preoccupied with Ray’s inability to be forgiven, and the problem of his individual soul is complicated by the phonecall that reveals Harry’s plan for his men in Bruges. When the true nature of their assignment in Bruges is unveiled, the moral onus shifts to Ken who finds himself unable to be the strict arbiter of the Law required by Harry. Fiennes plays Harry in a delicious turn as a lower-class English tough who has clawed his way into middle-class success with a wife, kids, and a vicious don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy about his business. His viciousness is balanced by unswerving perfectionism and a legalism which asserts that the death of innocent bystanders necessitates suicide for the killer. Harry is a pharisaical executor, a condition that precipitates the explosive finale.
These explorations of law and grace emerged from McDonagh’s initial visit to Bruges on holiday. He says that he was “stunned by how beautiful” the city is and also found himself “a little bit bored.” These two sides of his experience produced Ken and Ray and later the reasons for their being in Bruges together in the first place. The simple plotline of In Bruges seems calculated to sell at a Hollywood pitch meeting: a pair of squabbling hit-men hide out in a foreign city and eventually fight their boss. It’s the buddy comedy mixed with the crime thriller and a dash of European class. This simplistic recipe was pushed in the trailer which featured exasperated quick takes by Colin Farrell and ended in gunshots which gave the film a clichéd appearance further hindered by the awkward title. It is telling that the trailer is not even included on the American version of the DVD.
But McDonagh invests these clichés with liveliness that makes them seem fresh and an undercurrent of moral seriousness drawn from his previous work in the theater. McDonagh’s meteoric rise to literary prominence is itself the stuff of movies. Raised in London by his Anglo-Irish family, McDonagh worked a dead-end job and lived with his parents in the bedroom he had since childhood. From this inauspicious position, he dreamed of doing something more valuable. Then, in a week and a half while his parents were away on holiday, McDonagh sat at a child’s writing desk that was in his room and scribbled out The Beauty Queen of Leenane which would go on to win critical acclaim (including a Critics Circle Award and a Tony nomination) and initiate his literary stardom.
This play was the first of a trilogy about desperate, humorous, violent people in Galway on the west coast of Ireland. The other two plays in the trilogy—A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West—along with another trilogy (The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Banshees of Inisheer) and a seventh play called The Pillowman were composed hurriedly in the mid-1990s during the same period as his first work. Then, the inspiration seemingly dried up, and for nearly ten years McDonagh reaped the benefits of that one outburst of creativity.
McDonagh admitted to feeling afraid that his one unexpected year of creation was a fluke never again to be attained. His playwriting aspirations were put on hold, and in 2006 he turned his attention to filmmaking. This shift is not surprising; all of his writing has been informed by cinema. He has said that the theater was not an important part of his cultural education and cites instead the films of Quentin Tarantino and Terrence Malick and punk bands like the Pogues as his primary influences. Many of his plays call for special effects like blood squibs and prosthetic body parts, devices more common to violent pop cinema than to serious stageplays. But few filmmakers who trade in the darkly humorous violence of the Tarantino variety manage more than lip service about the moral core of their works. Eli Roth’s claims that his Hostel movies investigate serious issues like American hedonism and the banality of evil are undercut by his obvious glee in constructing gut-churning shockers.
McDonagh is by no means averse to gleeful bloodletting, as evident in his Oscar winning short film Six-Shooter (2006) that features an exploding cow. Six-Shooter also stars Brendan Gleeson and functioned as a remarkable calling card for future movie work like In Bruges. But both of these films focus as much on the conflicted consciences of the protagonists as they do on gory special effects.
Of course, McDonagh’s dismissal of theatrical influences may be part of a cultivated posture that emphasizes his sui generis creativity rather than a typical artistic lineage. The titles of his plays allude to other Irish classics. A Skull in Connemara comes from Lucky’s monologue in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and The Lonesome West is Christy Mahon’s description of rural Ireland in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. McDonagh’s self-conscious connection to the high art of Ireland fused with a violent pop sensibility enriches his film and elevates it above the post-Tarantino, European peers like Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake ) and Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels ; Snatch ). These British crime thrillers display a formal exuberance with their clever camera movements, cheeky dialogue, and giddy violence, but they lack the spirituality of McDonagh’s film. Though McDonagh clearly delights in images of gunplay, his attention to law and grace infuses his work with a seriousness worthy of St. Paul.
But the question remains: does Ray’s dilemma ever find resolution? Is there justification that overcomes the problematic insufficiency of forgiveness? In the final shoot-out, Harry, Ken, and Ray continually create rules for each other. Harry won’t shoot at Ray when a pregnant woman is nearby, and Ken won’t shoot Harry when they are standing face to face. (Harry does shoot Ken in the leg, but only because he made him come all the way to Bruges and a flesh wound seems only fair.) This rule-making functions as their submission to the law, and at every turn Ken tries to offer grace, Harry tries to exact punishment, and Ray tries to escape.
The final volley of gunshots puts Ray in position to be a means of grace to Harry, to offer more than simple forgiveness, which would be obviously futile. Harry, through an unlikely chain of events, finds himself in the same moral dilemma that sent Ray to Bruges, and his strict obedience to his gangsters’ law forces a swift and cruel response for killing an innocent person. In a blood-choked whisper, Ray tells Harry that he is mistaken, that what appeared to be the death of an innocent was merely a trompe l’oeil produced by the Bosch-inspired movie set nearby. This whisper creates Ray’s escape from judgment and shows unity with his enemy rather than their cycle of guilt and punishment. No sense is given that Ray’s conscience will be wholly appeased, but in the midst of guns and blood, McDonagh finds grace for lawless men.
Charles Andrews is Assistant Professor of English at Whitworth University.