by Arpit Nayak
‘Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I’d grown up in a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.’
That was the first line of dialogue I’d heard in passing from a movie that has since become one of my favourites. Although it seems almost crass and even unremarkable at first glance, I couldn’t have picked a better line to hear in passing; it perfectly embodies the vulgar, sardonic, black self-deprecating humour that permeates through ‘In Bruges,’ disparaging its own setting into the first ten minutes of screen time—the modern day medieval town of Bruges—while immediately familiarising us with the irreverence of a truly self-aware story. Bruges is essential to the plot in a way that will become obvious as I gleefully ramble on about this masterpiece, but first, I have to draw attention to how effortlessly Colin Farrell (who is grossly underrated) pulls off that line with an air of rebellious insouciance and, of course, his Irish accent. Not only does that define his character straightaway, but it sets the tone of the movie and contrasts his character with the soft-spoken, self-assuredness of Brendan Gleeson’s (‘Mad eye’ Moody from the Harry Potter series). Martin McDonagh, the scriptwriter and director, begins, at this point, to use his characters as tools to explore human morality and its sundry manifestations in contrast and their interaction with each other. The final important character, introduced on the screen only in the second half is called Harry (ironically) played by Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort). This is, by the way, one of Ralph’s finest performances.
The plot is kept intentionally and deceptively simple. Ray (Farrell) has botched up his first assignment as a hitman, accidentally shooting a boy in the head, as a result of which, both he and his partner, Ken (Gleeson), have been sent to Bruges to lay low and await instructions from Harry, their boss. Ray doesn’t like Bruges, as should be evident from the quoted piece of dialogue, while Ken is absolutely taken with the medieval town, fascinated by its history, culture and the architecture. Ray wants to leave as quickly as possible but when his frustrated exhortations are met with Ken’s helpless assurances, he spends his time trying to get a drink, hanging out with a dwarf and courting a woman he meets on the sets of a film. In the meantime, Harry calls Ken and tells him to get rid of Ray, explaining that he had sent them to Bruges as a sort of parting gift to Ray so that he could have one last good memory before he died. When Ken shows some hesitance at the prospect of killing Ray, Harry is quick to assert that he couldn’t kill a boy and expect to get away with it. The rest of the movie follows all three characters as they come to terms with their respective realities and the application of morality.
What I love about ‘In Bruges’ is the in-your-face humour. It’s indecent, ludicrous and even unsettling at times, but it’s not a distraction. A lot of the humour arises from the conflict of our morality with that of Ray’s, who is supposedly the central character. If there’s one explicit idea McDonagh wants to convey it’s that morality is fluid and temperamental, and any attempt to define it only corrupts its very purpose. It’s the people who appear most moral, McDonagh seems to say, who are often also the most cruel. No character represents this idea more than Harry.
I was so affected by this movie that the moment I was done watching this movie I scoured the internet to find out more about McDonagh’s work. McDonagh is a stage writer with a number of broadway plays to his credit, and is considered one of the most important Irish playwrights of our time. He has also written and directed another feature film, Seven Psychopaths (another delightful, self-aware, brilliantly acted movie even if it has third act issues) and a fantastic short film, Six Shooter. Also, if you can find it, watch his play, the Lieutenant of Inishmore. I’ve only been able to read its script but it’s probably his best work to date. However, before I digress irretrievably, what becomes apparent after going through his other work is that his exploration of morality isn’t done in isolation, it’s explored in relation to speech and dialogue and, by extension, language itself. That’s why dialogue becomes so important within ‘In Bruges,’ because our only true access to a fluctuating morality is through an inflexible language. Indeed, at times, the characters will search, stammer and grasp for words that can accurately describe their moral inclinations and yet fall short. Sometimes phrases will be repeated inanely to accentuate the limits of speech itself when it comes to defining morality. Therein, language and morality become unavoidably reflexive and mutually destructive. At a crucial point in the movie, Harry proclaims that he would have shot himself ‘on the fucking spot’ if he had killed a child. Harry is not only very aware of his own morality but is also proud of it, the hubris that the ending cleverly, in a darkly comic way, uses as his hamartia. Looked at from this perspective, Harry is the tragic hero of this story.
One could think of the movie as a sick ‘three men walked into a bar’ joke, where the bar is purgatory (Bruges) and both meanings of the word ‘sick’ remain in play. This allegory is made fairly explicit in a number of scenes involving Ray and Ken visiting a series of museums with Catholic imagery—paintings, sculptures and even a vial of what is purportedly Jesus’ blood. The paintings are explicitly about sin, damnation and purgatory. It’s an obvious next step in the exploration of morality. Few other institutions throughout history can match the rigid inflexibility of Catholic institutions and their self-proclaimed authority over morality, as well as their constant misuse of it. Religious institutions like the Catholic church use uncompromising language to define morality and sin, unforgivingly passing judgement on those who affront it, while actively engaging in deeds that are arguably far more immoral. To say that, though, would be to fall into one’s own trap, and McDonagh steers just clear of it but makes his antipathy towards Catholicism quite apparent through some cheeky use of dark comedy. On his first mission, Ray is assigned to kill a Catholic priest in a church without any context or backstory, almost as if none is required. It’s also where he shoots a young boy in his head by accident. The young boy has a piece of paper in his hands with three of his sins scribbled on it: being moody, being bad at maths and being sad. All three sins are, in a way, Ray’s own. He’s moody in the first part of the film, sad throughout the rest and is bad at maths—he shot two people instead of one. This is a grotesquely funny comparison but a necessary one. It complicates the matter of innocence and sin. Of course the crime is unforgivable, and Ray knows it, which leads him to attempt suicide later on, but it’s this very guilt that finally becomes his claim to salvation in Ken’s eyes, contrasted with Harry’s pride in his self-serving rectitude. And then, the viewer is left with two irreconcilable values of Christian doctrine: sin leads to damnation and guilt leads to salvation.
It becomes necessary to try and pin down the intentions of the film itself, though it resists such an imposition. What is the film truly saying then? Does it celebrate the morally ambiguous? Does it simply endorse the same moral relativism that has been beaten to death in the 21st century? A little of both but not quite either. It does not seem to focus on the relationships between moralities, trying to redefine our understanding of it, remould it, but seems to encourage us to completely dismantle and actively reinvent it, doing away with a morality established through the use of power by institutions like the Catholic church and society in general. Even in so doing, the intention is never to justify or redeem the characters. In a way of frustrated cynicism, the film (most likely) kills off all three central characters, punishing any morality that does not question itself. That’s the only undesirable kind of morality—the kind that stagnates in its smugness.
“I see,” Harry says in the end when the mechanism of which he is an embodiment of turns against him. The final act shows the last practical consequence of an immature, undeveloped morality—violence. This act of violence then is the conclusion to the joke: three men walk into a bar and realise their morality is a set of rigid, predefined, unquestionable social values constructed over time by institutions of power, so they shoot each other in the face. Maybe it’s not much of a joke when you tell it like that.
Written by Arpita Nayak, illustration by Sawani Chaudhary
Arpit is from Shillong but also from Bhubhaneshwar. He is currently struggling to graduate from Fergusson College with an English degree. He likes reading, watching movies, petting domesticated animals, cooking, and singing, but will often be too lazy to do any of that.
Sawani looks for art in places large and small. She can fangirl about travelling, Monet, Game of Thrones and cats in the same breath. She easily passes off as a Mumbaikar when in Mumbai but Pune runs in her blood.