When I met Martin McDonagh, he was in the process of directing his newly released film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” near Asheville, North Carolina. A local bookstore was hosting him for an afternoon interview and book signing, and I was more than happy to make the hour and a half drive to meet one of my favorite storytellers.
Martin McDonagh isn’t exactly a household name, but he does have one more Oscar than most Hollywood A-listers. His first venture into film directing, a short called “Six Shooter,” won McDonagh an Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short Film. Prior to working in film, McDonagh wrote an impressive array of dark stage plays that received wide acclaim. My own introduction to McDonagh was his 2008 black comedy “In Bruges.”
“In Bruges” stars Colin Farrell (Ray) and Brendan Gleeson (Ken) as two hit men on the run from London. Ray botched his first job and accidentally killed a young boy along with the Catholic priest he was hired to kill. Ken is an older, more experienced hit man who acts as Ray’s partner, mentor, and babysitter.
After the boy’s murder, Ray and Ken’s boss, Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes), orders them to go hide out in the city of Bruges, “the most well preserved medieval town in all of Belgium.” The film follows their misadventures as they await instructions from Harry in Bruges.
Laughter Plus Punishment
When I first saw the film, I was completely unsure what to think of it. The viewer experiences emotional whiplash, laughing heartily at absurd lines of well-crafted dialogue, but mere moments later sadly contemplating what it means for the state of Ray’s soul that he murdered a little boy. The movie is genuinely funny and sincerely dark, and effectively shows that good comedy is perfectly compatible with heavy themes.
Where “In Bruges” succeeds and other dark comedies often fall flat is in its preservation of the weight of emotion throughout the film. This is due at least in part to the spectacular piano-based score composed by Carter Burwell, best known for scoring films by the Coen brothers. The melancholy main theme evokes sincere reflection, even nostalgia, always drawing the viewer back to the deepest questions at the heart of the film, questions about salvation, penance, and punishment.
McDonagh was raised Roman Catholic, but left the church at a young age. Nevertheless, as an Irishman and former Catholic, the church features prominently in his stories. Ray’s first job as a hit man is to kill a priest. Ray and Ken visit the Church of the Holy Blood in Bruges, where a vial of Christ’s dried blood is said to be held. They also visit an art gallery featuring paintings of the final judgment of all mankind, which leads Ray to ask Ken his thoughts on sin, death, and the afterlife. In other words, even if not orthodox or traditional, “In Bruges” is a deeply theological movie and must be approached as such.
The Characters Experience Purgatory on Earth
One theological concept the film explores is purgatory. The characters in the film share a common misunderstanding of the role of purgatory in Catholic teaching. Ray explains that he sees purgatory as kind of a “middle” place between heaven and hell. It’s where you go if “you weren’t really sh-t, but you weren’t all that great either.”
However, Dante’s “Purgatorio” presents an allegorical take that differs strongly from Ray’s description. Purgatory, on Dante’s understanding, is a place of purification and cleansing for the redeemed. The sins of the baptized and penitent are forgiven, but the wrongs done in this life still damage the soul, and this damage must be healed through purgatorial trials. The final punishment for sin has been taken on by Christ, but a temporal process of gracious purgation of stains from the soul still remains to be completed before the Christian can enter paradise, glorified and whole.
Although the characters in the film misunderstand purgatory, Notre Dame professor Philip Bess suggests that in the film, the actual city of Bruges becomes something like Dante’s purgatory for the characters themselves. The city is a site of a sort of cleansing and sanctification for a repentant Ray.
Ray thinks he deserves death for killing the little boy, and his boss Harry agrees. In fact, Harry remarks that if he had killed a child, accidentally or otherwise, he would have killed himself on the spot. Despite this, Ken believes Ray has an opportunity to live a new life, to be redeemed.
Ken’s death forms the poignant emotional climax of the film. For the sake of Ray’s potential future, Ken gives up his life. Harry intends to kill Ray for his sins. Knowing this, Ken attempts to wrestle his gun away, but is fatally wounded on the steps of the Bruges clock tower.
Realizing that neither he nor Ray have much time, Ken chooses to act. With Luke Kelly’s haunting voice singing “Raglan Road” in the background, Ken crawls to the top of the tower and throws himself to the ground to warn the oblivious Ray below of the impending danger. Ray escapes, and in the ensuing drama, Harry is killed, giving Ray a chance to live a new life free of the weight of Harry’s condemnation.
A Suicidal Christ Figure
In an interview with BOMB Magazine in 1998, McDonagh said he has always been fascinated with the idea of a “suicidal Christ figure,” someone who kills himself to save others. I didn’t read this interview until after my second viewing of “In Bruges,” but it stuck with me.
Revisiting the film, I asked myself if Ken was intended to be this suicidal Christ. Ken seems to be the man who willingly sacrifices himself so Ray might have redemption. One reason I was so intent to track McDonagh down, the reason we were in the same tiny Asheville bookstore that day, was because I needed an answer to my question. Was I crazy, or was this intentional?
After the informal interview ended, I approached McDonagh to get my copy of his play, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” signed. I first asked him a few questions about faith and his stories. Then I asked him about Ken and Ray, about the “suicidal Christ,” and if he intended Ken to be a Christ figure, redeeming Ray in the end by his death. He thought about it for a moment and finally said, “You know, I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that makes sense.”
And just like that, he was gone. His statements that day about his faith and philosophy were ambiguous, and he himself seemed uncertain about his moral trajectory. I think his personal uncertainty is reflected poignantly in the unsatisfying ending of “In Bruges.”
Ken’s self-sacrifice offered Ray a potential chance at redemption, but nothing more than a chance. In this sense, Ken’s death was insufficient. The film simply closes with the line: “And I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die.” Ray’s cleansing in the city of Bruges is, then, only a poor echo of the joyful certainty with which the pilgrims in Dante’s purgatory climb the mountain before them that leads to paradise, drawn upward by the grace of the one whose death was sufficient.
As Oscar buzz builds around “Three Billboards” and I wait with bated breath for it to open in wide release, I’ve enjoyed revisiting the classic that is his original foray into feature-length film. I believe McDonagh is searching, longing for something, and that this is reflected in his art. It’s part of what makes “In Bruges” a rich film that rewards repeat viewings. I look forward to seeing what artistic brilliance McDonagh produces in the future, and I hope to someday meet him again.