A Fairytale of Christmas: Revisiting the Bloodshed and Beneficence of ‘In Bruges’

No matter how unimaginably bad last year was, we find ourselves closing out 2021 with as close to an apocalyptic chill as we’ve likely ever felt. So it’s clearly no wonder that so many are seeking spiritual comfort in the annual procession of feel-good, reassuring Christmas classics (Charlie Brown, The Grinch, eighty-five different versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol…)

But surely no other work of filmed entertainment pegged to the holiday season offers as morally complex, powerfully affective and life-lessoning a narrative as 2008’s incisively brilliant In Bruges. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh – whose Three Billboards nabbed seven Oscar nominations in 2018 – it boasts one of the most unexpected plot lines ever dreamt up: two hitmen botch a job in London, and are sent to hide out in the ridiculously romantic Belgian city of the title (so prettily lit up for Christmas), while their seething boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) figures out just what the hell to do with them.

Luminously played by Brendan Gleeson (Ken) and Colin Farrell (Ray), our two antiheroes experience completely opposite reactions to their new surroundings: the former, surely seeking something graceful and life-affirming as a counter to a career for which he has “killed people, most of them not very nice people,” finds wondrous, almost childlike joy in giving himself over to the town’s rich history and ethereal beauty. The latter simply sneers, “Bruges is a shithole.”

What follows is a stark, exigently cathartic and deeply poignant bonding experience between two men whose profession would otherwise simply mark them out as patently immoral to the rest of, ahem, civilized society – who, let’s face it, have little right to be passing judgment, considering how shockingly widespread the support remains for the sociopathic policy positions of our traitorous former president.

Typical of McDonagh – who also wrote and directed Seven Psychopaths – the film is as lewdly hilarious as it is uniquely poignant, replete with some of the most sardonically laced (and expletive heavy) lines in cinematic history. Handing a fancy Belgian beer to Ken in a bar, Ray snarks, “One gay beer for my gay friend, and one normal beer for me, because I am normal.” Harry, repeatedly lauding Bruges’ fairytale charms, earnestly entreats, “How can fucking swans not fucking be somebody’s fucking thing?” How indeed.

It gets better. (The following is a not a sequence.)

Ray: “If I’d grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t, so…it doesn’t.”

Harry: “An Uzi? I’m not from South Central Los-fucking-Angeles. I want a normal gun for a normal person.”

Ken: “Let’s face it Harry, you’ve always been a c*nt; and the only thing that’s gonna change is you’re gonna become an even bigger c*nt. Maybe have some more c*nt kids.” (Harry bellows back, “You retract that bit about my c*nt fucking kids!” Ken grudgingly complies.)

While Ken is giddily taking in the sights, Ray manages to find tender solace in a beautiful, local petty thief, Chloe (a radiant Clémence Poésy), who also detects something pure and compelling in him. They are “lost soul-mates” surely, both yearning for genuine emotional connection, as well as a way out of their respective vocational traps and personal hells. Ray, you see, had accidentally killed a small child (an altar boy, yet) during that hit-gone-awry – and he is tortured by it to the brink of suicide.

The parade of amiable miscreant characters includes several prostitutes, a possibly racist dwarf, even a philosophical firearms dealer. (“He does yoga,” smirks Harry.) And then there’s the pregnant but unflinchingly fierce hotelier Marie (Thelka Reuten), who fearlessly tells a pistol-wielding Harry, “This is my hotel, so you can fuck off.” Fuck…yeah.

There is so much class-a swearing (not to mention matter-of-fact drug abuse) that the filmmakers went ahead and strung it all together for a special expletive-only trailer, which really should have been granted its own special Academy Award.

But in the end Ken makes the greatest possible of all sacrifices to protect his young friend – wanting nothing in return but the hope that he’s given Ray a chance to change his life. It is one of the most ethically powerful moments ever put to film, and sees to it that In Bruges will forever tower above the well-intentioned but unconvincing moral patchwork of contemporary holiday parables.

Without getting preachy, what McDonagh’s incredible film manages above all is to implore us to put aside our by-the-numbers, simplistic moral judgments, and see good and evil for the labyrinthine concepts that they really are. He even uses Hieronymus Bosch’s monumental painting The Last Judgment as a visual aid (and somehow layers in a seamless joke about Tottenham). Indeed, that flubbed hit back in London was actually put on a priest who had molested Harry as a boy (thou shalt not kill…but thou shalt really not maim the innocence of a young child). And murderous Harry, it turns out, would sooner off himself than breech his code of ethics – and is touchingly kind to his wife and children.

It’s all wrapped up with a stirringly redemptive, voice-in-head mea culpa by Ray, who actually still manages to sneak in one last potshot at Bruges.

“There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison…death…didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in fucking Bruges.”

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