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.
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 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.
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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