A dark comedy about two UK hitmen who are spending a few days in Bruges. As the story unfolds, we learn that one of them, Ray, has accidentally killed a boy while executing a priest, and he’s torn up about it. His roommate and “co-worker” pal Ken takes the break to explore the pretty old town, while the younger Ray wants to hit the pub. Their boss Harry has sent them to Bruges to lay low, or so it seems and told them to wait for his call, supposedly with a new assignment. When the assignment finally comes in, Harry tasks Ken with executing Ray. In Harry’s mind, he just can’t have the killing of an innocent child go without consequences, even if it was accidental.
While the theme of friendship vs. duty becomes apparent later in the film, I wonder if the real theme of In Bruges is broader, namely being thy brother’s keeper. As hitmen, they justify their killings by having mostly killed bad guys, but Ray is suffering from having killed the boy, and we find out that Ken has killed an innocent person in the past as well. When Ray is about to commit suicide in the park, Ken, who’s been waiting and ready to off him, finally prevents Ray to take his own life. Later, in a flashback, we also find out that Ken’s wife was killed by a cop and avenged by the boss Harry. When Ken and Harry climb up the tower, and Ken finally succumbs to fate, Harry can’t go through with the kill. He only shoots Ken when finding out that Ray is still In Bruges. Ken, mortally wounded drags himself to the lookout and throws himself off the tower as a warning and diversion for Ray. This creates enough commotion for Ray to get back to the hotel and fetch a gun. But whilst there, both he and Harry refuse to proceed with the shootout while the pregnant hotel owner is present. Finally, in the end, when the little-person actor Jimmy, dressed as a schoolboy, is accidentally killed by Harry, he takes a gun to his head as that is his principled action for seemingly killing a child. And Ray, even though Harry is after him, still tries to save Harry by telling him that Jimmy is not a child.
The dark comedy is delivered mostly through dialog. The funny banter and back and forth between the two main characters Ray and Ken make the opening of the screenplay go by fast and is quite entertaining. Even though the somber backstory is given through bits of dialog and a few flashbacks, the present dialog doesn’t change in tone and remains punchy as the two friends jab at each other. This works particularly well for the setup. And while the story turns darker as it progresses once we reach the assignment and suicide, I felt that some of the irreverence of Ray and bits of dialog successfully maintained the dark comedy tone throughout the film.
While this is a gangster film, and there is some violence and a final shootout, to which the Harry character even refers in a moment of self-awareness about this being a film, it differs from most other gangster films as it doesn’t deal with committing crimes in the usual sense. There’s no heist, robbery, etc. It deals with the consequences of their actions from a character's perspective. While in Pulp Fiction the characters deal with the inconvenience of having accidentally killed the guy in the back seat, they don’t necessarily deal with the morality of that particular event. In In Bruges, the morality of the accidental death is the main issue with which the characters deal.
Ray and Ken are hitmen who are made approachable through funny banter, their friendship, and their contrast. There’s a bit father/son dynamic, with Ken being the older of the two, and as a parent on vacation wants to see the sights and take in the culture, while the “son” Ray wants to do something fun and drink. We soon realize that Ray is drinking less for fun and more to numb his guilt over killing the boy. Which he later does with drugs as well.
I found both characters engaging and felt the writer incorporated elements that made them stand out as individuals. Ray is younger, Irish, and defiant about Bruges, while Ken is more seasoned, weathered, older, and perhaps wiser, at least in the context of their milieu.
However, even though Ken is the character with a goal, the story seems to be more Ray’s. Perhaps it feels this way also because Ray is the only one left alive and does go through a transformation in the very end.
Ken’s relationship with Harry and the past which has Ken indebted to him, plays a crucial part, as it provides extra weight to the loyalty towards Harry, but it also serves as a counter when Harry is about to shoot him. I found this worked well as it was not just a piece of information to help justify offing Ray.
Even though Harry is the real heavy, his unhinged rants make him more of a comic character until later in the story when he takes matters into his own hands.
Bruges itself plays a key role in the story, as both a childhood memory and a fantasy world that’s seemingly different from the ugly everyday world where the gangsters normally operate.
However, this idealized vision of Bruges is a bit of a fantasy, since the town has its criminals, Chloe and Eirik and Yuri, the arms dealer, all of which play into the violent ending. And finally, Jimmy, who resolves the storyline of Harry and thus saves Ray.
I found that setting this film in a picturesque town like Bruges not only provided a good contrast to the violent nature of the character’s work and everyday life but also served as a good representation of the world outside of gang life…families, tourism, sightseeing, pregnant hotel proprietors, swans until you dig deeper. It reminded me of the idyllic opening of Blue Velvet until the ear appears.
The plot doesn’t push the narrative as it does in typically structured gangster films, where the goal is a heist, robbery, or catching the gangsters if the point of view is from the police.
The key plot points include the killing of the boy which happened before the story begins, the trip to Bruges, the job to kill Ray, ray meeting Chloe and injuring her partner in crime Eirik, Ray’s attempted suicide and Ken informing Harry that he let Ray go, Ray being prevented to leave, Harry traveling to Bruges, Eirik informing Harry and Ken that Ray’s still there, Ray shooting Ken and Ken jumping off the tower, Harry shooting Ray and accidentally killing Jimmy, then committing suicide.
The goal to kill Ray happens on page 41 and sets the rest of the story in motion, I felt was more of a trigger for the questions with which the characters grapple. The events do serve to escalate the plot and bring it to a violent finale, it is a gangster film after all, what made it work for me was that the plot events were closely tied to the theme, and thus didn’t feel out of place, “plotty” or just convenient, even though they could have.
There are relatively large coincidences in this story which materially affect the outcome.
Ray meeting Chloe, and then getting into two altercations, first with the couple at the restaurant, who later prevent him from leaving Bruges, and the ex-boyfriend Eirik who later informs Harry about Ray’s whereabouts, which starts the finale.
The other coincidence is Jimmy, a character who by his stature literally saves Ray’s life in the end.
Two main questions left me pondering upon finishing the script, whether hitmen are this self reflective and introspective in real life, and whether a mob boss would indeed off himself simply because of a previously stated “principle” that one must instantly take his own life after killing a child.
But It all works…setting characters that we have seen many times (gangsters) in an unusual setting, and having them deal with personal issues, turns the expected on it’s head.
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh