When In Bruges, Question Everything

Everyone holds a set of morals. A range of guidelines that help one decide what’s right and what’s wrong. People often judge one another based on their morals and these ethics are put in place so when difficult situations arise, easy decisions can be made. But sometimes morals are not so clear cut, and it’s difficult to divide people into stark groups like good or bad. Instead comes black and gray morality: one who does reprehensible things but is simultaneously painted as good. The film In Bruges rests in the gray area as the characters hold muddy ethics and force the viewer to evaluate their own stance.

In Bruges is a dark comedy that follows two Irish hitmen who have been sent to Bruges, Belgium after a bad hit job. Ray, played by Colin Farrell, messed up his first assignment when he accidentally killed a young altar boy. Ray was instructed to kill a priest and as he was shooting the priest in the back, one of Ray’s bullets went through the priest and into the young boy’s forehead. Afterwards, Ray is sent to Bruges, a town he finds horribly boring, until he receives orders from his boss, Harry, on what to do. Ray’s fellow hitman Ken, played by Brendan Gleeson, stays with him in Bruges to await Harry’s instructions. When Harry calls, Ken is told to kill Ray as punishment for killing the young boy. Ken is unable to follow through and refuses to kill Ray. This upsets Harry and he goes to Bruges to kill Ken for failing to carry-out his orders.

Colin Farrell's Ray struggles with morality In Bruges.
Colin Farrell’s Ray struggles with morality In Bruges.

The film presents a series of moral dilemmas as the main characters are hitmen who draw lines between who can and cannot be killed. The overarching, shared moral for the film’s characters is that killing kids is unacceptable. There’s certainly no argument against the statement, rather the focus is on how the characters react to Ray’s deed and the questions it brings up. Ray himself feels immensely guilty for accidentally killing the young boy and as a result, he considers taking his own life. Ken tries to reassure Ray saying that he “didn’t mean to” and that suicide is not the answer. Instead Ken says Ray should stay alive because “you’re not going to help anybody dead. You’re not going to bring that boy back. But you might save the next one.” There’s sympathy from Ken as he knows Ray made an accident and he sees how truly distraught Ray is over the killing. The exchange poses the question whether it’s possible to forgive Ray because although he did an unspeakable act, it was not on purpose. In the case of Ray, is an eye-for-an-eye the proper route to take? On the other hand, despite Ray unintentionally killing the young boy he did purposely kill a priest. If the boy had been spared, Ray probably would have continued being hitman instead of quitting.

In Bruges asks who’s allowed to call the shots

Ken’s reconciliation with Ray comes after his inability to follow Harry’s orders to kill Ray. Despite Harry’s role as a crime boss, he’s firmly against what Ray has done. Harry says “If I had killed a kid, accidentally or otherwise…I’d killed myself on the spot.” For this reason, he orders Ken to get rid of Ray. Interestingly, Harry’s morals are black and white in this instance whereas Ken is unsure how to deal with Ray because he knows the child’s death was an accident. At one point, Harry admits that Ray “wasn’t such a bad kid,” and he sent him to Bruges so that he could have one last happy memory before his death. It’s insinuated that while Harry knows Ray made a mistake and feels guilt over the situation, he cannot let him get away with it because the action is more important than the cause or aftermath.

At the end of the film, Ray agrees to a shootout with Harry because he knows he must pay for his crime and that Harry will stop at nothing to make sure he repents. A chase ensues in the town square and Harry shoots Ray. As Ray falls down, Harry sees that he’s made the same mistake. Harry’s bullet went through Ray’s back and into the head of another man. Harry accidentally shot a little person that was dressed as a school boy, but his face is blown off so Harry mistakes the man for a child. Seeing that he’s made the very mistake he’s punished Ray for, Harry quickly evaluates the situation. Within a few seconds, Harry does as he promised and puts the gun in his mouth the shoot himself. Right before he pulls the trigger, Harry says “you’ve got to stick to your principles.” Harry’s dedication to his principles is admirable, but then he is also mistaken. Should Harry die because he’s a crime boss and killed an innocent man, or no because it’s presumed that his hits were only ordered on bad guys? Ironically, Ray tries to stop Harry and tell him that the man is a little person, not a child. Despite Harry trying to have killed him, Ray appears selfless as he tries to save Harry because he knows Harry thinks he’s committed his own worst sin.

Other, smaller moral dilemmas take place in film as well. Ken tries to live a good life but also must come to terms with his profession as a hitman. To be at peace with himself, Ken justifies that he hasn’t killed many people and “most of them were not very nice people.” While Ken confesses that everyone he’s killed is not nice, he says that one was. Like Ray, Ken also struggles with having killed someone who he felt didn’t deserve it. The innocent man was just trying to protect his brother, but when he tried to hit Ken with a bottle Ken killed him. Ray says it’s ok to kill him because he used a bottle which is a weapon. Through this conversation, the men question whether it is acceptable to fight someone who is only protecting their family. Later on, Ray hits a woman but says he only did it because she swung a bottle at him. Again, the issue of the bottle as a weapon comes up and whether or not this a is justifiable cause for self-defense against otherwise good people. In another instance, when Harry tries to kill Ken he’s stopped because Ken compliments him and willingly accepts his fate. Harry doesn’t want to shoot his friend after having heard the compliments and insist that the man not go down without a fight. Harry is a crime boss yet he still doesn’t wasn’t to take Ken’s life without it feeling like self-defense: he wants Ken to die with dignity. Through all these moral dilemmas, the characters exhibit traits of black/gray morality because they are questioning their actions. Heroes don’t question good deeds, they act on instinct just as villains are inherently evil.

Throughout the film, the three male characters teeter the line of likable and irredeemable. Despite all of their guilt over Ray’s accident and having to unwillingly pursue its consequences, the men also have questionable qualities. Ray regularly makes tasteless jokes involving racist remarks and gay slurs while Harry hurtles expletive-ridden insults at everyone. The film interweaves their good traits with their bad traits, making it impossible to fully label a character as moral or immoral. It’s not good guys doing bad things or bad guys doing good things rather it’s a showcase of complicated characters who have hidden their complex interiors behind shallow exteriors. As the film progresses, the characters unveil their complicated layers and views of morality that causes the viewer to rethink their first judgement. Yet as soon as Ray or any of the characters incites sympathy, it’s pulled from the viewer with a controversial remark or action and vice versa. The film tests the viewer as it dares the audience to place a character in a good or bad row: if illustrated, In Bruges wouldn’t be portrayed as separate columns but as a Venn diagram.

This concept of black and gray morality has been a common trope in the media. The film Prisoners attempts to address similar moral dilemmas. When a father’s daughter is kidnapped, he tortures the suspect. Wanting to take matters into his own hands, the father becomes a vigilante and kidnaps the young man who he believes is responsible for the disappearance of his daughter. As the film plays out, the father partakes in gruesome acts such as locking the suspect in a small, dark box and threatening to kill him if he doesn’t confess. When the suspect doesn’t say a word, the film blurs the lines between who is good and who is bad. If the father is abusing the wrong suspect, he becomes the villain yet is it even right for the father to seek justice in this primitive way?

Orphan Black, Breaking Bad, and superhero films are other examples of characters who cannot be placed in a box. In Orphan Black the viewer is introduced to Sarah, a character who takes advantage of a clone’s suicide and tries to financially benefit off of it. As the series continues, ethical questions are placed about human cloning and about whether Sarah’s action redeemable because she’s fighting against a questionable organization. With Breaking Bad, the protagonist is diagnosed with lung cancer and turns to cooking meth to survive.

Superhero films may be the biggest players in the black and gray trope as villains are often riddled with complex backgrounds that make it hard to view them as pure evil. Loki feels inferior to Thor, Syndrome just wanted to be part of the group in The Incredibles, Magneto wants to protect mutants in X-Men: First Class, Harvey Dent was a white knight until crime overpowered him in The Dark Knight and the Sandman robbed to get money to treat his daughter’s illness in Spiderman 3. Ironically, while the superhero’s deeds are pure and unquestionable, their opponent is less clearly defined. The question then becomes, should these characters with dubious morals become transparent? There’s hardly disapproval when someone is wholly good, but questions are raised when someone tiptoes on the line of morality.

While it’s easy to approve and root for saint-like characters, it’s more realistic to view characters who live in the gray area. These characters find common ground between being a white knight and dark evil to offer a different viewpoint. It’s far easier to question the choices of these characters like Ray, which makes them more interesting. Characters like Disney princes or Sam from True Blood offer optimistic portrayals in otherwise unfair worlds, but where is the realism? What makes these characters tick or do bad things? On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are characters like Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones and Freddy Krueger who do not question their actions but instead relish in their evilness. Both of these character types, good and evil, are essential to films but they are not the only options. The men of In Bruges place their faults at the forefront and willingly own up to them, something good and bad characters would never do. This means that gray characters don’t find resolution easily or even at all. Uncertain actions lead to uncertain consequences and as a result, Ray, Ken, and Harry find themselves in limbo.

Ray and Ken look at Hieronymus Bosch's The Last Judgement.  It depicts purgatory.
Ray and Ken look at Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgement. It depicts purgatory.

The town of Bruges acts as a purgatory for the characters in the film. After Ray commits his crime, he’s ushered to Bruges where he remains until his fate is decided. Bruges is purgatory because it’s where Ray tries to cleanse himself of his sin in order to move forward. When he first arrives, Ray does not know which side he will leave Bruges on. If Ray commits suicide, then he would leave in agony. If Ray can reconcile with the accident and do some good, he will find heaven within himself. Ken acts as Ray’s guardian angel as he tries to guide him along the path of righteousness. Meanwhile Harry acts as God as he makes the final decision about Ray’s fate and where he will end up. Ultimately, Ray decides that purgatory is hell and he would rather try and live than spend his time in a eternal state of stagnation. Ray isn’t suddenly going to become a white knight, nor does he want to be, he’s simply going to try and become a little less gray.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I thought In Bruges 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. But the funny thing is that I wouldn’t even put this in my Top 10. 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.

    • Geri Wynn

      Yeah, the movie was very understated and under-promoted. I had no expectations when I started watching it and I was pleasantly surprised. It seems as if low-budget films have a higher emphasis on substance than high-budget films.

    • I feel the same way, except I’ve seen it countless times and it’s my all-time favourite film. I just love it to death.

  2. Bruges is certainly a place I would go to based on how it was showcased in the film.

    • Been there twice last year once in the summer then the winter. Its a really pretty place which was never used in a film before. A lot of the restaurants are very nice but some are over priced, the same thing goes for chocolates and hotels and houses very over priced. You can go on the boat walk around and its very lovely. But some men will after a while a little bored, I felt it seemed like a dream land sort of place. And quite a few places I liked I would go back and see. I think this film was made as a way of Martin McDonagh not only having a feeling for the place but felt he could tell a story. And he came up with the ideas of gangsters being told to stay In Bruges, and it was a very good idea showing the beauty with the bad at the same time!

    • I’d been to Bruges before seeing the movie, but it was only for one summer afternoon. I’d love to revisit Bruges for Christmas.

  3. Vast-Mor

    Only thing that bothered me was that Bruges in this movie doesn’t seem to have a police department. People are getting killed and injured in the streets and no sirens etc.

  4. instrawbridge

    Fantastic article. Didn’t occur to me to think of the complicated ethical questions being flung around. Harry seems to be a consequentionalist (killing a kid is bad no matter the causes) while Ken is an deontologist (the cause is important in itself and not in relation to the end consequence); and just maybe Ray adheres to virtue ethics (do what is considered virtuous in a certain circumstance). Never occurred to me to put the movie in those terms, but I like it.

  5. Christopher Sycamore

    This movie is just so fantastically quotable: “YOU’RE A F*****G INANIMATE OBJECT!”

  6. I love the movie, and I’m totally on board with your idea of just becoming “a little less gray.” I think much of the world is like Bruges, at least the way Ray sees it: a purgatory, in which people must determine whether they are content with inaction or will rally to fight for that which they hold true. More people need to escape their stagnation.

  7. Chase Courtney

    Great read. I love In Bruges, but I’ve never realized how each and every dilemma comes back to that very theme. I love the intricacies within each of the characters in the movie and I’m surprised you didn’t include Peter Dinklage’s dwarf character in your analysis being that he’s likeable and sometimes presented as sympathetic, but also partakes in drugs, prostitutes and dry sarcasm blurring the lines between his position as far as good or bad. (Especially considering your Game of Thrones reference.
    Film today is filled with protagonists that are portrayed as neither entirely good or bad. I’m glad you chose to include other examples of this. Sadly, many mainstream audiences have not seen or even heard of In Bruges and your inclusion of this broadens the degree to which your work can be received. Among my favorite characters that embody this moral ambiguity present in today’s pop culture are those of DC’s Constantine and Showtime’s Dexter.

    • linda dawn hammond

      The “dwarf character”, or Little Person as most prefer to be known, was played by a Canadian actor, Jordan Prentice, and not Peter Dinklage. There is no physical resemblance between the 2 men, other than perceived height. https://m.imdb.com/name/nm0696015/

  8. Muhammad

    i do enjoy reading the review , well-managed and sets me off thinking.


  9. KipDynamite

    Peter Dinklage isn’t in ‘In Bruges’.

  10. linda dawn hammond

    Very interesting analysis of the film, “In Bruges”. Elsewhere, I’ve read that in the original working script, Ray survives the shooting but returns to England and ultimately commits suicide. As Ray is, in spite of his many faults, a likeable and sympathetic character, many viewers would prefer a less bleak ending, but it is an appropriate resolution. I believe that in omitting the finality of this ending, McDonough decided to leave it open, thereby allowing the audience to arrive at their own conclusions as to their preferred fate of the protagonist, Ray. In doing so, it compels us to bring our own understanding of morality and forgiveness into consideration, as we decide if we choose for Ray redemption or death. It is therefore not only Harry who plays “god” in deciding Ray’s fate, but also we, the viewers.

  11. It’s interesting that comparison to Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ escapes discussion (albeit a very loosely surmised one, btw). Christmas imagery throughout: Thekla Reuten’s Madonna figure, Jimmy/Altar Boy as Tiny Tim, 3 killers/Magi (?): 3 Ghosts …

    Nooks & Crannies; Yes!!

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