Joan Dean
University of Missouri-Kansas City

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In Bruges (UK, 2008)

Director: Martin McDonagh

Writer: Martin McDonagh

Cast (Principal): Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Thekla Reuten, Jérémie Renier, Jordan Prentice, Ciarán Hinds (uncredited)

Cinematographer: Eigil Bryld

Music: Carter Burwell

Production Design: Michael Carlin

Producers: Graham Broadbent and Michael Czernin

Martin McDonagh’s success as a playwright has already elicited two volumes of essays (Chambers and Jordan 2006, Russell 2007), most of which locate him in a tradition of Irish drama.  However, McDonagh has long professed a greater interest in cinema than in theatre and his dramatic successes facilitated a quick and incredibly successful transition from stage productions of a national character to the international marketplace of screen.  For his first cinematic effort, the 2004 short film Six Shooter, McDonagh won an Academy Award as well as BAFTA, IFTA, and a British Independent Film awards.  Shot in Ireland and financed jointly by Film Four Lab (UK) and the Irish Film Board, Six Shooter featured Brendan Gleeson and Rúaidhrí Conroy in a blackly comic parable of mourners and murderers set somewhere in the Irish midlands that evoked echoes of Synge and Flann O’Brien.  McDonagh’s subsequent foray into feature-length filmmaking, In Bruges(2008), has – to date  —  taken in $40 million worldwide, received generally positive reviews in Ireland, the UK, and the US. Both its lead actors have been nominated for several awards and the film has resurrected Colin Farrell’s faltering career in the US with his winning of a Golden Globe.1   However, nothing in its funding, distribution, or production suggests a connection with Ireland. So, does it belong in a review of Irish cinema? This question provokes the larger and thornier interrogation: What is an Irish film?

In Bruges is another of McDonagh’s meticulously plotted clockworks.  After a child is accidentally killed during the assassination of a priest (the uncredited Ciarán Hinds), the two hitmen, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) are dispatched from London to Bruges to wait for instructions from their employer, Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes).  While Ken immerses himself in the beauty of the picture-postcard medieval town, Ray is impatient with waiting and guilt-ridden over the child’s death.  Diverted by the shooting of a film (“They’re filming midgets!” [McDonagh 2008: 13]), Ray meets and falls for Chloe (Clémence Poesy) who sells drugs to the film’s cast and crew. On a date with Chloe, Ray attacks a couple he assumes to be Americans. Having received instructions from Harry to kill Ray for botching the London job, Ken collects a pistol and silencer from Harry’s contact in Bruges.  Ray, meanwhile, acquires a pistol from Chloe’s ex-boyfriend.

On a day of brilliant sunshine, Ray watches children at play and decides to use that gun on himself.  At that very moment, Ray finds not only his gun, but also Ken’s pointed at his head.  Realizing that Ray intends to commit suicide, Ken suddenly decides not to kill Ray but to save him from despair.  Ken packs Ray off on a train and phones Harry to report just that.  By a blackly humorous twist of fate the couple Ray attacked the night before identify him on the train, have him arrested and returned to Bruges.

Now Harry himself travels to Bruges, collects a gun, accepts a supply of dum-dum bullets (“I know I shouldn’” [65]) and finds Ken.  Together they ascend the bell tower, where Harry shoots Ken in the leg intending to punish rather than kill him.  As he helps Ken down the tower’s stairs, Harry learns that Ray is back in Bruges.  Harry again shoots Ken and sets off after Ray.  Ken throws himself off the tower to warn Ray.  An elaborate chase scene ends on the set of the film-within-the-film, where Harry fires three rounds into Ray.  Inadvertently, the film’s midget, dressed as a schoolboy, has his head blown off by a dum-dum bullet that passed through Ray.  Assuming that he has done exactly what he wanted to kill Ray for doing, killing a child, Harry kills himself.  Ray survives and hopes to atone for the child’s death.

The casting of two Irish actors, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who not only speak with Irish accents, but repeatedly acknowledge an Irish heritage is one obvious Irish dimension to the film.  “Originally Ray and Ken were written as Londoners”, said McDonagh.  “I only changed them to Irish after we’d cast Colin and Brendan.  Everything seemed to fall into place after that – their camaraderie, their antagonism towards Harry” (McDonagh 2008a). That casting choice, however, gives rise to other Irish elements.  As Ken decides to take his own life to save Ray’s, the soundtrack departs from Carter Burwell’s accomplished score and gives us The Dubliners performing “On Raglan Road”.  (Viewers of Miller’s Crossing [1990] will recall that Carter Burwell there used another Irish anthem to male loss, “Danny Boy”, as the soundtrack in that film’s most violent scene.)

In Bruges is rife with references to nationality.  Americans are said to be loud and vulgar; indeed, some are.  Johnny (Jordan Prentice) twice asks that the fact that his nationality not be held against him.  More than any other character Ray relies on these stereotypes and generalizations. When Ray says that “Amsterdam’s just a load of bloody prostitutes” (48), he is speaking to a prostitute from Amsterdam, but he critically mistakes Canadians for Americans.  Nationality is only one of many signifiers of identity.  That Johnny is a dwarf might seem more defining than his nationality, but in Johnny’s drug-induced fantasy of a coming race war between blacks and whites, the fact that he’s white is more important than his physical stature or nationality.  McDonagh’s comedy often emanates from the odd choices characters make about their identity.  That his characters can prioritize or exert agency in making these choices is surprising, perhaps optimistic.

In The Myth of an Irish Cinema, Michael Gillespie (2008) argues that while there are identifiable Irish qualities in films, the idea of an Irish film is inherently vexed if not empty. Similarly, Patrick Lonergan alludes to the folly of trying to locate McDonagh in “a stable ‘Irish’ tradition” (2009: 107).  Whatever Irish dimension exists inIn Bruges is inextricably linked to its moral, specifically Catholic, dimension of guilt, forgiveness and redemption.  The distinction between assassinating a priest, one who was somehow mixed up with Harry Waters, and inadvertently killing a child was dismissed by many critics as spurious, but it forms the moral core of the film.  It is both the reason Harry orders Ken to kill Ray as well as the reason Harry takes his own life.

Viewing Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgment prompts Ken to observe, “I was brought up believing certain things, I was brought up Catholic, which I’ve more or less rejected most of… But the things you’re taught as a child, they never really leave you, do they?” (25).  Ray confesses his sins to Ken in scene that recalls the centrality of confession in McDonagh’s plays.  Harry can’t shoot Ken because he’s “Like Robert fucking Powell out of Jesus of fucking Nazareth” (74).  The references to Catholicism are even more explicit in the screenplay: a stage direction describes the character who informs on Ray as “looking guilty as Judas” (87).

A surprising number of American reviewers identified an Irish dimension in In Bruges.  The New York Timesreferred to Farrell and Gleeson as an “Irish Laurel and Hardy act”.  Chicago’s Roger Ebert repeatedly mentioned Dublin, Ray’s hometown.  The Village Voice identified McDonagh as  an “Irish playwright” and argued that “the movie’s modest charm lies mostly in  the  blarney  that  flies between these three mobsters”.  Rolling  Stone  referred  readers to  McDonagh’s   “great Irish plays”.  The New Yorker wrote of an “Irish playwright” and “Irish assassins”    (  Accessed 30 January 2009).

With six murders and three of the film’s six principal characters dead, In Bruges offers the hyperbolic violence that infuses all of McDonagh’s work.  Alongside the violence is a boatload of angst about guilt, loyalty, and honor.  Harry’s suicide, for instance, is motivated by his conviction: “You’ve got to stick to your principles” (86).

The geography here is no less prominent than in McDonagh’s Irish plays, all of six of which employ geographical references in their titles. After three weeks rehearsal with Gleeson and Farrell, the film was completely shot on location in Bruges and, especially in its opening sequences, appropriates travelogue cinematography.

In Bruges is even more aggressively allusive and self-referential than any of McDonagh’s plays.  In theGroeninge Museum the camera, acting as Ray’s eyes, lingers on a dishonest judge being flayed alive in Gerard David’s “Judgement of Cambyses” and Bosch’s The Last Judgement. Bosch’s painting not only exacerbates Ray’s guilt, but also inspires the design of the film-within-the-film.  The production design of Michael Carlin, whose set design for The Duchess, also 2008, earned him an Academy Award nomination, fills the film-within-the-film’s misty, hallucinatory set with enormous animals, menacing nuns, disconcerting doubles, masked figures, and, yes, dwarves.

Equally evident is McDonagh’s debt to Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter.  Not only does McDonagh borrow Pinter’s hired assassins and their recent botched job, but bits of stage business such as pointlessly having a character check for snoops outside a hotel door.  He also lifts the names under which Ken and Ray register in the hotel, Cranham and Blakely, from a 1985 BBC production of The Dumb Waiter starring Ken Cranham and Colin Blakely.  (McDonagh would have been fifteen at the time of its original broadcast.) The parallels between In Bruges and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), which inspires the film-within-the-film, are no less insistent.  In both, a couple travels to a beautiful European city with an extensive system of canals after the death of a child only to discover a nightmarish world of grotesque visions. And so on. McDonagh’s web of intertextual references not only to Bosch, Pinter and Roeg, but also to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994, which offers a very different sense of the medieval), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Mamet, Hitchcock, and McDonagh’s own The Pillowman will occupy academics for years to come.

In Bruges reiterates the centrality, almost sanctity, of childhood innocence seen in The Pillowman.  As well as including references to a Belgian child abuse scandal, the camera dwells on the children Ray watches in the squares and parks of Bruges.  Ray gives the heavily-pregnant owner of his hotel 200 euros for her baby.  Later,when she stands in his line of fire, he cannot shoot at Harry.

Harry, too, is connected with children: not only does he say goodbye to his three children, but fond memories of his last happy holiday (he was seven) in fairy-tale Bruges.

The self-referentiality of McDonagh’s plays is here fused with its counterpart in gangster films described by Lance Pettitt:

The screen gangster’s self-awareness has long been a trait of the genre ever since a shot and dying Rico asks rhetorically in Little Caesar (1930): ‘Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?’  This sense of self-dramatisation, an awareness of their mediated image, is part of the gangster’s charisma and power (2004: 34).

Here Harry announces the final showdown: “Don’t be stupid, this is the shoot-out” (82).

Apart from two comically dated references to American guilt over Vietnam and the use of euros, the film is devoid of topical references. There’s nothing in the costuming or sets to suggest a specific time.  There are, for instance, neither cell phones nor iPods in sight.  The hotel doesn’t have voice mail.  Chases are conducted on foot.  Herein lies an important distinction between In Bruges and the recent wave of British crime films described by Steve Chignall (2001). We are spared the cinematic pyrotechnics of the Guy Ritchie school of British “new-laddism” crime films (Monk, 2000). Thankfully, we are also spared their misogyny, Social Darwinism, sadism, amorality and insufferable hipness.  The mise-en-scène of In Bruges is lush rather than austere, more medieval than high-tech.  Instead of a flashy rapid-cut editing, the film dwells on the city’s architectural splendors.  The desperate macho posturing of films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels(1999), Sexy Beast (2000) or RocknRolla (2008) is reduced to a torrent of comic homophobic slurs aboutgayboys, gay beer, a “big gay baby” (43), and poofs.  Rather than fashionista gangsters of the British films, Ray wears the same shirt for three days running.

McDonagh not only refutes the new laddist British films, but also reworks the formulae of hitmen films ranging from This Gun for Hire (1942) to the Bourne franchise featuring Matt Damon.  Movie hitman survive by adhering to a well-defined code — sometimes that code produces an obsessive-compulsive precision and attention to detail; sometimes an allegiance to a noble cause. As violent as In Bruges unquestionably is, the violence goes wrong as often as it “succeeds”.  As if to refute the new laddism of McDonagh’s generation,these hard men repeatedly “come over all Gandhi” (73).  Ken and Ray each carry their own sadness: Ray’s stems from the death of the child Ken’s from his death of wife.  (Although she died in 1976, Ken still wears his wedding ring.)  Ken is sad after Harry tells him to kill Ray.  He says that he gave up cocaine because it made him sad.  He sadly recalls his wife’s death.  Twice, Ray breaks down in tears.  Ken tells Harry, “I love you unreservedly” (73).  Ken’s loyalty to Harry began when Harry avenged the murder of Ken’s wife decades earlier, but he has transferred his loyalty to Ray, not only out of a sense of responsibility for bringing the much younger Ray into the business but because he sees redemptive possibilities for Ray that Harry lacks.

McDonagh’s dilemma lies in trying to reconcile the postmodern and the moralistic.  He sees In Bruges as exploring the possibilities of redemption.  At the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2008, he told reporters “I don’t know if people can be redeemed after the terrible things they do, but I enjoyed asking the question» (2008c).  Winner of the BAFTA for best original screenplay and nominated for a second Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for In Bruges, McDonagh will have other opportunities to do just that.

  1. When Colin Farrell accepted the Golden Globe for his performance as Ray (Best Actor in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy), he described In Bruges as “simultaneously profound and beautifully comic and wonderfully painful, filled with delightful remorse and more than any thing else, the sweetest, sweetest redemptive qualities” (Farrell 2009). Farrell might have been referring the redemption of his own acting career after the debacles of Alexander (2004) and Miami Vice (2006). []

Works Cited

Chambers, Lilian and Jordan, Eamonn (Eds.).  2006. The Theatre of Martin McDonagh: a World of Savage Stories.  Dublin: Carysfort Press.

Chignall, Steve.  2001.  ‘Travels in Ladland­’.  The British Cinema Book, 2nd ed., Murphy, Robert (Ed.).  London: British Film Institute, pp. 281-292.

Farrell, Colin. 2009. Accessed 28 January 2009.

Gillespie, Michael.  2008.  The Myth of an Irish Cinema.  Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Lonergan, Patrick.  2009. Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era.  London: Palgrave.

McDonagh, Martin.  2008a.  In Bruges.  London: Faber.

_____.  2008b.  Accessed 30 January 2009.

_____.  2008c.  Quoted in Monk, Katherine, “In Bruges Explores the Good, the Bad and the Irish,” Montreal Gazette, 9 February.

Monk, Claire.  2000. ‘Men in the 90s’, British Cinema of the 90s, Murphy, Robert (Ed.) London: British Film Institute.  Accessed 30 January 2009.

Pettitt, Lance.  2004. ‘”We’re Not Fucking Eye-talians”: The Gangster Genre and Irish Cinema”, in Barton, Ruth and O’Brien.  Harvey (Eds.)  Keeping It Real: Irish Film and Television.  London: Wallflower, 2004.

Russell, Richard Rankin.  2007. Martin McDonagh: A Casebook.  London: Routledge.