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.
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.
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.
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.
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