In Bruges, or a film I refer to as The film with the most what-the-f*ck moments, is easily one I can (and have) watched a hundred times. If you’re reading this, you probably have, too. Sidenote: if you haven’t, do a U-turn now, because this article contains Kardashian-levels of being spoilt.
Fighting every urge in my film-student body to whip out the film geek jargon and eviscerate this piece of filmmaking, I think it’s nice to appreciate a film from a passive-observer point of view, too. As a playwright, the creator, Martin McDonagh, certainly frames his story this way. With a definite proscenium arch separation between the viewer and the diegesis, I found myself subtly encouraged to be a voyeur in the lives of Ken, Ray and Harry.
This may seem odd, what with film being a sometimes invasive storytelling medium. But with In Bruges, McDonagh says (in his Brit-Irish-brogue hybrid accent), “Hey man, just watch the movie. I’ve got this.”
The piece of the film most interesting to focus on is the climax – again, turn back now if you haven’t seen it; seriously, this will ruin it for you – because the themes of the film so beautifully arranged throughout, come together in the neatest chaos I’ve ever seen on screen. And, more funeral arrangement than wedding bouquet, the themes of martyrdom, innocence/loss-of-innocence, and dreaming all culminate as Ken stands staring over Bruges lit in jaundiced yellow light.
For lovers of the film, this tableaux of Ken bleeding, wheezing, dropping coins from the bell tower is haunting and stunning. Then, he steps forward into nothingness with absolute surrender. Here, the martyr (Ken) seeks to save his surrogate son, Ray, from Harry. The irony not being lost on the audience, in that Harry sent them to Bruges for Ken to kill Ray for his earlier transgression of killing a little boy, only for Ken to be the one saving ‘a little boy’. Ray’s childlike innocence is so moving, that we root for him, a child-killer, because the self-sacrifice of Ken absolves him of his guilt.
If you’ll cast a fishing line of thought back to the creepy painting from the beginning of the film – the one depicting the end of the world. This painting is particularly ominously named “The Last Judgement”, by Hieronymus Bosch.
Zip back to Ken lying, brains dashed on a cobble-stoned square of Bruges, and the subsequent dramatic chase scene; Harry the cat and Ray the mouse. As Harry and Ray reach yet another square (how many does Bruges really need?), the audience is thrown face-first into the Bosch painting. McDonagh can’t be accused of subtlety in using this particular narrative device. Here, the film-within-a-film brings the painting to life in a weird cosplay of symbolism. The highly religious imagery contains, by default, the themes of martyrdom and dreams – or rather, nightmare. The only thing missing from the ‘The Last Judgement’ is innocence. Here, McDonagh obliges using a dwarf hopped up on horse tranquilisers. We all know what goes down (and if this is the first you’re hearing of it, it’s your own fault: you were warned). And, as the camera hides the true age of the ‘child’ Harry just murdered, the dramatic irony plays out and he passes his own last judgement on himself for committing infanticide, and puts a gun to the roof of his mouth, because “you’ve got to stick to your principles…”.
Martin McDonagh renders a subtle yet powerful culmination of filming techniques and narrative form. The themes of martyrdom, innocence/loss of innocence, and dreaming are distilled in an eerie recreation of ‘The Last Judgement’ via Ken, Ray, and Harry to give us a filmic gem that I know I’ll be watching for years.