This Advent season I am thinking about the theme of hope through the lens of four Hollywood movies. This week: In Bruges (McDonagh, 2008).
As we will see, In Bruges ends on a note of hope, but it primarily a movie about waiting, particularly waiting for the Last Judgment.
The main characters – Tarantino-esque hit men Ken and Ray – think of the Last Judgment in legalistic terms about being good or bad, but the filmmaker points to a more Christian perspective.
First, there is the theme of substitutionary atonement. The mob boss Harry only cares about honor and has his unbreakable rules. Ray has accidentally killed a child, which is a sin even a mob boss can’t forgive. Someone has to pay: “If the buck don’t stop with [Ray],” he asks Ken, “where does it stop?” “It stops with me, Harry,” Ken replies. “That’s an easy one.” Ken believes in forgiveness, because he believes people can change. So Ken literally gives his own life to allow Ray to escape punishment. It is a parody of medieval Christianity where Jesus gives his life to satisfy God the Father’s wrath.
That’s not the most helpful way to think about the Crucifixion, but the characters discuss also Purgatory, which is a second Christian theme in the film. It is like Bruges is a kind of Purgatory – an “inbetweeny” place, a place of waiting, a place to be purified of one’s sins through suffering in order to prepare for the afterlife in Heaven.
I would suggest that Purgatory can be a lens through which we think about Advent. Advent, too, is a time of waiting for the Last Judgment, a time of preparation for the afterlife. Is it significant that In Bruges takes place during Advent?
Ken and Ray find themselves in “the most well preserved medieval city”. One that Harry sent them to, because he remembered visiting it as a boy. It is a “fairytale town”, a mythic place out of the past – a world that doesn’t exist anymore, a world those from a post-Christian culture have a hard time imagining ever existed.
It reminds me of the way our culture continues to celebrate Christmas – a kind of well-preserved medieval holiday – even though we as a culture no longer believe in Christ. Christmas has become a ritual for tourists – wait in line to touch the relic of Christ’s blood, because that’s just “what you do”. Like us at Christmas time Ray and Ken find themselves in Bruges, surrounded by symbols from the past, symbols they don’t quite understand but feel they need for reasons they can’t explain.
So In Bruges is about the search for judgment and redemption in a post-Christian world. Ray and Ken no longer believe in God or the Last Judgment or the afterlife, but they still instinctively believe in sin. They know that even if God is dead, not everything is permitted. But they have nowhere to turn when they do sin. Ray is suicidal, because he knows he needs forgiveness. But if there is no one to judge us, then there is no one to forgive us, either.
Ultimately Ray does find forgiveness. Ken’s sacrifice is surely eye-opening for Ray, but important, too, is Harry’s death, which shows where the buck really stops, the natural consequence of his life of principled violence. Through his time in Bruges, Ray learns to affirm life. He finds hope, as he puts it in the film’s last lines:
“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 fuckin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges. And I really really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really really hoped I wouldn’t die.”
Ray decides to take responsibility for his actions and realizes that maybe the concept of the afterlife is useful after all.