Early in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), two Irish hitmen, are standing in a museum, contemplating a painting of the Last Judgment. Ray describes purgatory as “the in-betweeny one – you weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either” – but the humor of the description belies the depth of the discussion and the depth of the characters’ uncertainty.
As it turns out, In Bruges, a taut little tragicomedy, is permeated with discussion of sin and atonement. The film opens with Ken and Ray arriving in Bruges to lay low after botching an assignment, and we soon learn that “botching an assignment” involved the accidental death of a young child at Ray’s hands. Ray is ridden with guilt. Ken attempts to console him before being ordered to kill him by their boss, Harry Waters (a scene-stealing Ralph Fiennes). Meanwhile, Ray’s attempts to assuage his guilt with hedonism are unsuccessful, leaving him suicidal. From this darkly comic premise, the film proceeds in a series of twists and reversals that are not only sharply written, blackly humorous, and firmly grounded in character, but continue to explore and expound on ideas of sin and atonement.
When Ken and Ray arrive in Bruges, they learn from an innkeeper, named Marie (Mary), who is with child, that all the inns are full because of Christmas. These subtle resonances with the Nativity story set the stage for a subtle incorporation and retelling of Biblical events.
Throughout the first half of the film, Ken and Ray wander Bruges aimlessly, engaging in meandering and often humorous discussions of guilt and sin. Notably, Ken is fascinated by the city’s “old buildings” and ancient relics, among them a purported sample of Jesus Christ’s blood. In contrast, Ray, acting like a pouting child, is dismissive of the city, instead opting to visit pubs and antagonize midgets (yes, this happens). A subtler but no less important distinction comes in the person of Harry, who describes Bruges as a commodity, a “fairy-tale town” – something nice for Ray to do before his death, not a place to be valued in itself.
As the film progresses, Ken and Harry come to represent two extremes between which Ray is caught; grace, symbolized by Ken, and the law, symbolized by Harry. (It would be an oversimplification, but perhaps a helpful one, to characterize them as New and Old Covenant, respectively.) Ken consistently demonstrates genuine care and affection for both Ray and Harry, while Harry lives in a world of strict rules. While Ken wants to show Ray mercy, Harry insists that he must answer for killing a little boy, and applies this eye-for-an-eye justice universally: “If I had killed a little kid,” he tells Ken with great fervor, “I wouldn’t have thought twice. I’d have killed myself on the f—king spot.” While Ray is stricken by guilt, Harry is self-righteous and ignorant of his own sin, acting as a kind of Pharisee figure. His dispassionate, impersonal attitude towards Bruges, contrasted with Ken’s earnest love of the city, could be read as a contrast between the Pharisees’ sterile legalism and Christ’s loving fulfillment of the law.
The interplay between law and grace comes to a head when Ken makes the decision to spare Ray’s life and sends him out of Bruges after stopping a suicide attempt, counseling him to “try to do something good… You’re not going to help anybody dead. You’re not going to bring that boy back. But you might save the next one.” Although Ray leaves Bruges, he has not been fully healed, and intimates that he may still kill himself eventually. This lack of closure comes into external play when, thanks to a minor offense earlier in the film, Ray is arrested and taken back to Bruges.
Meanwhile, Ken makes another impassioned plea to Harry’s deaf ears for Ray’s life. However, like a lamb going to slaughter, Ken refuses to fight Harry, instead accepting his death: “I love you unconditionally,” he says. It is here that Harry first compares Ken, mockingly, to “Jesus of f—king Nazareth. Indeed, after Harry shoots and leaves him for dead, Ken sacrifices himself by leaping from the tower to warn Ray – who, upon seeing his body, exclaims, “Ken! Jesus!”
During the ensuing pursuit, Marie also tries, unsuccessfully, to dissuade Harry from bloodshed. The chase eventually leads to the surreal, foggy set of a film, where Ray’s midget is shooting a dream sequence – populated, apparently, by figures lifted from the painting of the Last Judgment. Here, Harry, attempting to kill Ray, instead unintentionally shoots the midget, who, in death, appears to be a little boy. Harry, now complicit in the sin he thought he had distanced himself from, promptly kills himself, declaring, “You’ve got to stick to your principles.” In the end, Harry’s fanatical adherence to inflexible rules kills him needlessly.
Ray, meanwhile, succumbing to his gunshot wounds, finally finds the will to live, resigning himself to Providence as he looks up to the tower where Ken died for him and is taken into the blinding white light of an ambulance. The film concludes without explicitly confirming whether Ray will live or die, but there is little doubt that his soul has been saved by the sacrifice of another.