Martin McDonagh’s dark crime-comedy In Bruges (Universal Studios 2008) represents film-making at its best. Without excessive reliance on the special effects with which Hollywood is infatuated (and infected), and simply by employing the basics of cinema – successive images and sounds – it manages to draw its audiences into the unlikely world of professional assassins, or hitmen, to such an extent that one falls under the spell of the world constructed by the cine-camera.
The fact that the film is described as a dark, or black, comedy, is testimony to the strangeness of our species; after all, comedies elicit humour – as In Bruges certainly does – but when the subject matter of this cinematic narrative is carefully considered, one stands astounded (and a little disgusted with oneself) that one can find any of the violent, graphically presented events, crucially constituting the narrative, humorous, or funny.
This paradoxical state of affairs explains, I believe, why the film has garnered something of a cult following – cult films, I believe, grow into such largely because audiences are fascinated by something elusive in them, ‘something’ inexplicable and not quite susceptible to smooth and easy comprehension. Think of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, or his Kill Bill duo, or of that enduring cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, none of which are easily reducible to a formulaic understanding, like so-called Rom-Coms invariably are. Cult popularity such as this testifies to something enduringly, tantalisingly elusive about them.
In Bruges falls into this category of film too, and here I want to offer a brief attempt at understanding why this is the case. On the assumption that not many people have seen it – it is hardly mainstream – here is a synopsis of the plot (spoiler alert). Two hitmen, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), are sent to cool their heels in Bruges (Brugge, in Flemish), probably the most beautiful city in Belgium (my partner and I have traversed it from side to side, so I can attest to its ‘medieval’ charm and beauty), by their boss, Harry, after rookie Ray accidentally killed a boy in a church when carrying out his first assassination.
Ken is enamoured of the beautiful place (which is revealed in all its glory by wonderful cinematography, as they wander through it, or go down a canal in a boat), in contrast with Ray, who seems to have no receptivity for its beauty, and only brightens up when they are drinking beer in a local bar. It transpires that Ray is riven with guilt about the young boy who died when he (Ray) inadvertently shot in his direction. As happenstance would have it, Ray spots a beautiful girl, Chloë (Clémence Poésy), and engineers a ‘chance’ meeting with her, using the opportunity to arrange dinner for the next evening.
While Ray is out with Chloë, Harry phones Ken in their hotel and instructs him to kill Ray on the grounds that killing a child is intolerable. Meanwhile Ray gets into a scrap with two Canadians in the restaurant, leading to him and Chloë leaving for her place, where they are interrupted by her ex-boyfriend and partner in crime, Eirik, at the crucial moment. It turns out that the exquisitely beautiful Chloë happens to be a drug dealer, who also robs tourists with Eirik’s help. (Here is one of the reasons for In Bruges being so fascinating: the film brings together the most unlikely of extremes, making it a cinematic study in incongruity.)
Ray spends the night in the company of a dwarf actor, Jimmy, and two prostitutes, sniffing cocaine he found at Chloë’s place, while listening to Jimmy holding forth about the supposedly imminent, all-consuming world war between whites and blacks. The next day Ken collects a gun from Harry’s contact in Bruges, and reluctantly goes to find Ray, intent on carrying out his instructions from Harry. He sees Ray sitting on a park bench, and as he approaches from the back, gun pointing at Ray’s back, the latter suddenly lifts a revolver he took from Eirik and points it at his own head. Taken aback, Ken stops him from committing suicide, and witnessing the silenced gun in Ken’s hand, it is immediately apparent to Ray that he was on the verge of being killed by his colleague.
Ken tells him everything, and urges him to leave Bruges by train to make another start elsewhere. He accompanies Ray to the train, then returns and phones Harry to inform him that he had desisted from carrying out orders. Predictably, Harry sets out for Bruges in a fury to kill both of his ‘employees’. When he gets there in the evening, Ken is calmly waiting for him, drinking beer on the city’s market square. They decide to go up Bruges’s famous belfry to settle their differences, and after a darkly funny exchange between Harry and the official at the ticket counter (which ends with Harry beating the man up), they climb up the stairs to the top, with panoramic views of the city.
In the meantime Ray has been apprehended on the train by the police, after being identified by the Canadian couple whom he knocked out in the restaurant the previous evening. He is returned to Bruges, where Chloë pays for his bail. All starry-eyed they go to the square and sit down on a bench right in front of the belfry, where they proceed kissing and hugging, blissfully unaware that Harry and Ken are walking past them towards the venue of their intended duel.
Ken refuses to fight Harry, who realises he can’t kill Ken just like that, and shoots him in the leg instead out of frustration. On the way down the stairs, with Harry supporting the injured Ken, Eirik comes to inform them of Ray’s presence right outside the belfry. Harry shoots Ken in the neck to stop him from interfering, and sets off to find Ray. Bleeding profusely, Ken drags himself up to the top of the belfry again, but when he realises he cannot see anything below because of fog, he jumps to his death to warn Ray, uttering the dying words, that Ray should take his gun, when the latter kneels next to him in consternation.
To cut to the chase, Harry starts shooting at Ray, who runs back to their hotel, where – to protect the pregnant hotel owner (another beautiful woman) – he suggests to Harry that they take their fight outside. When he jumps onto a barge, Ray loses his gun, and Harry shoots him in the back. Harry follows the barge and when Ray staggers down the street – to where the dwarf actor, dressed like a schoolboy, is shooting a movie scene – pumps more bullets into his back.
One of his shots misses Ray and blows the dwarf’s head clean off. When Harry sees his corpse, mistaking him for a child, he puts the gun into his mouth and commits (principled) suicide, despite Ray trying to inform him that his victim was not a child. The film ends with Ray, surrounded by Chloë, the hotel owner, and medical personnel, being lifted into an ambulance, and saying that he hopes he will survive. Then all goes black, suggesting that he died, although it is left open-ended.
The reason why I have reconstructed the film reasonably thoroughly is to be able to explain why it has gained such a cult following. It has to do, I believe, with the incongruities that run throughout the film: Bruges is superbly beautiful as far as its medieval architecture, canals, quaint streets and lanes, and vivid colours are concerned. Into this delightful place come two hitmen whose shady past soon starts catching up with them. When the camera first focuses on Chloë’s angelic face, one has a brief intimation that things might just change for the better for Ray, until one’s startling discovery that she, too, is deeply compromised through her criminal activities.
See what I mean? Then there is the flashback showing another angelic face – that of the boy inadvertently shot by Ray before they fled from Britain. Everywhere one looks there are incongruities centring on the contrast between beauty and (the horror of) death.
This can be neatly summed up by saying that the film is stretched between the Kantian notion of beauty – which, for Kant, is experienced when there is harmony between what one understands and what you perceive as an image – and the countervailing notion of the sublime – which one experiences when there is a conflict between what one understands and what you perceive as image.
And in the case of In Bruges there is what one might call the ‘terrible sublime’, where (unlike the sublime experience of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul), in addition, the unimaginable horror of these events occurring before one’s eyes simply cannot be reconciled with the heavenly beauty of the city and of Chloë. This leaves one ungratified, in a sense, wanting to find out what it is about the film that tantalises one’s understanding and imagination simultaneously, without resolution. But to achieve this requires intimate knowledge of cinema as an art form.