In Bruges: Exploring Chivalry

Martin McDonagh’s black comedy In Bruges follows two hit men, Ray and Ken, hiding in Bruges, a small city in Belgium. After a hit gone awry, Ray and Ken are ordered by their boss, Harry, to hide in Bruges until further instructions. Ray spends most of the trip in Bruges consumed with guilt. Although he was ordered to kill a priest, Ray accidentally murders a young boy. The plot thickens when Harry instructs Ken to kill Ray for his egregious mistake. Despite its crude humor and violence, the film depicts medieval allusions and wrestles with religious themes.

The medieval town of Bruges incorporates chivalry into the film. Ray and Ken, for example, serve as the “knights,” pledging loyalty to their Lord,” Harry (173). Ken and Harry’s loyalty goes back for years. Ken’s wife, a black woman, was murdered by a white man, who met his demise thanks to Harry. Ken’s loyalty to Harry, however, is tested when he is asked to kill Ray for his unforgivable accident.

Knights followed the “Code of Chivalry,” which simply refers to a system of training and standard conduct. In Bruges reflects a few of these qualities: obeying those placed in authority, speaking the truth at all times, guarding the honor of fellow knights, persisting until the end in any task, and never refusing a challenge from an equal.

Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) discuss the afterlife.
Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) discuss the afterlife.

The qualities of loyalty and honor have been briefly discussed, so how does the film reflect Christian values? During Medieval times, knights were Christians and believed that God supported and guided them. While touring Bruges, Ken and Ray visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood. At the sacred basilica, Ken explains to Ray that on the top altar resides a phial, brought back by a Flemish knight from the Crusades, containing drops of Jesus Christ’s blood. Ken expresses amazement that the dried blood, during various times, turns back into liquid. While telling Ray that they should get in line to touch the phial, Ray, showing no interest in the matter, asks “Do I have to?”. Margitta Rouse argues that while Ken attempts to “recreate the ‘feel’ of the sacred past,” Ray’s perception of the Middle Ages as a reflection of “his own sinful past” (175). Immediately afterwards, Ray departs from the church and waits outside for Ken, observing the people passing by and finally, stops to stare at a young boy with his family. Arguably, while Ken has no trouble believing in God, Ray struggles, losing touch with God since the accident. Ray’s cynical attitude towards the blood of Christ could result in separating himself from God, being unable to develop a relationship with God.

All in all, the trio demonstrate the code of chivalry, yet it is the idea of justice that goes into question. While Harry wants to kill Ray for his crime, Ken believes he deserves to live. Prior to Harry’s arrival, Ken convinces Ray to leaves Bruges and start his life anew, shielding him from Harry’s wrath. The scene where Harry arrives in Bruges and confronts Ken about his failure to kill Ray raises an interesting and compelling argument. In this pivotal scene, Harry and Ken’s conversation evoke the chivalric code of “to speak the truth at all times.” But, what is the truth? For Harry, if he had killed an innocent child, he would have killed himself; however, Ken believes that Ray has the capacity to change. For these two men, the definition for “right” conflict with one another.

Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Harry (Ralph Fiennes) discuss Ray's fate.
Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Harry (Ralph Fiennes) discuss Ray’s fate.

Ken wants to save Ray, while Harry wants him killed, calling up an image of Christ and Death battling for a life. Ken represents the Christ-like figure, while Harry assumes the role of Death, waiting to take his next victim. Because Ken refuses to kill Ray, Harry assumes that responsibility. They gather at the top of a belfry tower, but upon learning that Ray is back in Bruges, Harry wounds Ken and rushes to kill Ray. In a final attempt to save Ray, Ken climbs to the top of the tower and falls, whispering to Ray that Harry is in Bruges to kill him. Ken becomes a Christ-like figure, sacrificing his life for the sake of Ray’s. Notice that Harry wounds, not kills, Ken. In order to get to Ray, Harry shoots Ken in the leg and leaves. Although Ken fail to obey Harry’s orders, there still exists a sense of honor.

Not only were knights responsible to protect the weak, but also knights were expected “to guard the honor of fellow knights.” For Ken, he sacrificed his life to warn and protect Ray from Harry. Initially, Ken took responsibility for his actions by letting Ray go and refusing to fight back Harry. Now, Ray finds himself against Harry, and, since the film reflects the knight’s chivalric code, he is unable to “refuse a challenge from an equal.”

The film successfully strikes a balance between humor with philosophy, offering a wonderful study of justice and morality. By studying the medieval and chivalry aspects the film offers, this allows a better appreciation of the characters. For Ken and Harry, their long-lasting and respected relationship is shattered when Ken protects Ray. The film ends with an unconscious Ray, taken away in an ambulance, and the last shot of bright light. McDonagh leaves the ending open for interpretation; however, Ray’s last lines inf the film, “I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die,” suggest that he survived. Spoken in the past tense, these words, Ray finds his peace and perhaps, the will to live.

Works Cited

Rouse, Margitta. “‘Hit men on Holiday Get All Medieval’ Media Theory and Multiple Temporalities in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges.” European Journal of English Studies.

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  1. Griffis

    The thing is that “In Bruges” almost seems like a promotional film for the town: Basically every single sight is shown.

    Also, I lived in Bruges for a year during my studies, and it did seem like the town was very involved in trying to get films being made in Bruges in order to promote tourism (the town is very aware of the fact that tourism is its major source of income)

    • Do you really think the Bruges town fathers pushed for a film to be made where Bruges is constantly called a sh_thole? I don’t think so. (Yet it has made me want to see Bruges, I’ll admit.)

      But in any case, McDonagh has stated in an interview that the idea came to him years ago when he went to Bruges. Apparently he found it beautiful, but was still bored out of his mind after a while.

    • If you have te DVD with Martin McDonough interview On he says what you said at the start that e had a weekend in Bruges and had a love/hate relationship with it and decided he wanted to make a film in Bruges .. Remember this was his first movie writing and directing I dot think Bruges the council or whoever high up in Bruges would want a rooky director to make it as some sort of holiday brocure and alot of people in bruges wernt happy te way it was portrayed until of course it became a cult classic now they do tours showing the places the film was shot

  2. In Bruges is perfect! The peaceful scenery, Bruges, the music, the cultural references, the hilarious dialogues, Farrell’s facial impressions. That was a great EXPERIENCE!

  3. Sterling

    I’ve recommended this movie to so many friends who I think would enjoy this off-the-wall humor.

  4. Jamie Tracy

    Interesting analysis. I like it.
    Check out Ghost Dog with Forest Whittaker for a bit more of a hitman utilizing a code(Samurai). One of my favorite films.

  5. For me this is one of the few movies that I watch on a regular basis. Often times I just want to watch the beginning because of the wonderful Soundtrack and I almost always end up watching through the whole movie.

  6. In Bruges=Universal Classic!

  7. sheffield

    i just finished watching this movie for the first time and wow!! what a suprise. The movie was brilliant,exciting, and i loved the humour it made me roar out with laughter. I watched a few films in the last couple of days but this killed it for me.

  8. Daniele Forbes

    I just think Martin McDonagh is brilliant.

  9. Bolingg

    I’m surprised with how much the film impacted me and how memorable everything was. I’ve seen it about 3 times and the last time was about a month or so ago and I still can’t get it out of my head. Absolutely brilliant film.

  10. I’ve just recently heard of this movie. I like this analysis a lot. I’ll be sure to check out this film.

  11. Much of the violence was too over the top, with people scooting along after being seriously ventilated, so its credibility slipped some for me. It was somewhat like Fargo in a way. But having the death of a kid mixed with the humor didn’t set well with me.

  12. It makes my top five movies of all time.

  13. Its bloody excellent and funny!

  14. Jessica M Farrugia

    Will have to put this on my to-watch list!

  15. Perhaps.
    An intriguing and thought-provoking analysis, I saw Harry as nothing more – or less – than a psychopathic killer and one with a very bad temper at that. A very well-acted drama dipping deeply into black comedy on the strength of its acting, the film humanizes those who kill for a living portraying them on a holiday from killing but that one is supposed to kill the other because the first killer has inadvertently killed a child. Initially the film remarkably manages to suggest the murder of the child was just an honest mistake on the killer’s part a point brought across by Colin Farrell’s extraordinary acting. We feel his pain, suspend our system of values, and ultimately feel sorry for this tormented young soul who makes his living by killing and in the honest practice of his profession ended the life of the abused child rather than the abuser. The film does not make that point but fairly assumes that is how we will see things now – priests as abusers – no film can suspend that reality.

    Only later in the film is it made clear there’s some code of dubious chivalry at work which Harry articulates and unquestionably subscribes to as he then without hesitation kills himself for having himself now inadvertently killed a child in the melee as he tried to bring the first child killer to justice.
    This film set in one of Europe’s loveliest cities does manage very well to seem more than a long car chase without cars though it ends with exactly that – a dramatic carless chase through Bruges. Is it a metaphor for Knights of old or is its message a more modern one? It is about medieval knights sworn to protect the helpless who when they fail at the task honourably retire true to the code? Or about the innocent victims abused by those sworn to protect them and despite an avowed code to protect them?

    Just as the film does not openly name the crime of the priest marked to die in the beginning of the film, it also doesn’t name these killers to be saints but it does portray their humanity in a way I would not have thought possible. We see them not as killers but as caring troubled souls. The bridges of Bruges prove the perfect setting to bridge the reality of their deeds to the possibility that even murderers – and abusers – may have souls.

    In the end only Colin Farrell’s character is left standing though lying in an ambulance muttering that he hoped not to die. Who is he in that moment? The youngest and seemingly most innocent of the triumvirate, he alone is left. His colleague has determinedly killed himself – throwing his bulk from a tower to land at Colin Farrell’s feet and whisper a warming – an act of sacrifice and penance both. Harry has shot himself in a mad-eyed act of obedience to a code that claims no child is to be murdered despite the murderous world in which they live.

    If those who live by the code must die by the code then in young Colin Farrell’s escape from the code and his fate, he is the innocent child, broken and bleeding by his abuser, who now hopes to survive the abuse. Rather than a tale of modern medieval knights, this film meets with a more modern problem and attempts to make a statement about it. Harry is the crazed abuser ordering the deaths of others while venerating Bruges’ bridges and casting adoring glances on his own three children. (Fiennes’s ability to in one moment order up a murder by telephone then throw the phone at his wife in a fit of rage to in the next moment kneel at his children’s feet with palpable love on his face as he bids them goodbye taking himself off to murder Colin Farrell is masterful acting.)

    We are to protect children in the face of society’s failure to do so is the simple message of this film though made in a complex way. In any honourable film if we humanize murderers we must have a sufficient reason to do so and caring for children is more than suffient – it’s compelling. We need be as tormented as Colin Farrell was. Whether we can or not, whether we will or not is the unsettled matter as the ambulance moves away with Colin Farrell muttering in it. Will he live or die? Will his character succumb in justice leaving no one and nothing upon which we can rely but the assured presence of brutality? Or will the innocent child that his character represents survive the attention of his abuser for despie the abuse he ‘really, really hoped not to die.’

    The film tells us nothing more – having told us so much – and leaves it to us to determine the answer. Will we protect the children?

  16. remembrance

    Perhaps one’s restraint at the moment when all other impulses are to satisfy vengeful desires are what make us human.

  17. I thought it was brilliant. I’m reminded of it everyday, just out of the blue. Every scene sticks with me, the music, the acting, the memorable dialog, everything.

  18. Groooove

    “Why didn’t you wave hello to me today when I waved hello to you today?”

  19. Joslyn Robinson

    I enjoyed this article very much, it was well thought out and you go into a depth of character analysis which is interesting and thought provoking. Martin McDonagh is one of my favorite playwrights (I love In Bruge and Seven Psychopaths, but ah, Martin IS a better playwright than screeplay writer!) If you haven’t, read his play scripts The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. In his plays, he goes pretty deep into motifs, much like the christian cod of chivalry you uncovered in your article, but much deeper as stage plays have a less rigid structure than screenplays. Thanks! Look forward to reading more!

  20. ericespo7

    I have not seen the film yet, but the mixture of past and present, of Medieval chivalry and modern murder, seems very interesting. The same issues of justice and morality play out in today’s world as much as they did in the past, as your analysis shows. Good work.

  21. Brett Fletcher

    Nicely done! I’ve seen In Bruges several times but never thought of these ideas. I would love to see your breakdown of Seven Psychopaths if you ever have the chance.

  22. Jason052714

    Good piece. What I found fascinating with this film was not only the dismal yet intriguing cityscapes of Bruges, but the characters’ uncomfortable relationship. Gleeson and Farrell appear to be awkwardly intimate; lacking the meager conviviality of Estragon and Vladimir. The poor decisions of their pasts foment frequently comedic bickering between one another while they establish some level of adhesiveness through their exasperated frustration. But being miserable criminals isn’t enough to make convincing cinematic chemistry. There is a sense that even when Gleeson is asked to kill his partner (Farrell), refusing to fulfill the request was even more pointless than reconciling his own personal mid-life crisis during the climax of the film. Though well acted, his toxic chivalry toward Farrell was an inevitable and predictable outcome in the script. It’s just I don’t think the sympathy of Farrell or his pathetic situation was powerful enough to inspire such a drastic change of heart. It could be simply reduced to yet another story of how an evil and aged criminal deserves a shot at redemption. But I guess I am totally exhausted from it (like vampires and zombies) because now I am feeling forced to forgive murderers, thieves, and cons. We are once again asked see how we can identify with this awful person who is purportedly ‘just like us’ and we could perhaps see making similar choices faced with such perverse conundrums, but we can’t–and I don’t want to.

  23. Maddie Gubernick

    I’ve always loved this movie but never noticed a lot of these subliminal messages…

  24. “Ray’s cynical attitude towards the blood of Christ could result in separating himself from God, being unable to develop a relationship with God.”

    Very good understanding of the human psyche.

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