In the vast majority of cases, the idea of a story is to take the central character on a journey. That could refer to a physical quest that leads to changes within the protagonist and his surroundings, or it could mean a spiritual one that either changes the character fundamentally or reasserts his or her preexisting beliefs and feelings. Regardless of the details, the skeleton of a story almost always revolves around one person discovering something about themselves, or about the nature of the human condition, with the latter realization also having an effect on the particular character.
That’s all fine and dandy, but how do you make a viewer, reader or listener connect with someone who isn’t a good person? How do you make a normal, functioning human being empathize and sympathize with a criminal?
In Bruges is the story of two hit men who hide out in, unsurprisingly, Bruges, after a botched job that involved the accidental murder of a child. The viewer doesn’t know the backstory from the get-go, so at the surface layer Ray, the younger of the two, just seems like an infantile idiot who can’t appreciate the finer things in life and still acts like a kid whenever things don’t go his way. He pouts, he’s vulgar and his manners leave much to be desired. So how come by the end of the movie the viewer is rooting for him?
The other hit man, Ken, portrayed by the wonderful Brendan Gleeson, is an integral part of it. He’s an older man, kind, well-mannered and well-spoken. While Ray refuses to even look at the beautiful architecture of the town, Ken walks around with a faint smile on his face, stopping here and there to take in the view and admire the beauty of the place. He explores, sees the sights and revels in the atmosphere, all the while doing his best to make Ray see Bruges for what it is – not a prison as the younger man sees it, but a beautiful spot for tourism. Near the beginning we see Ken climbing the Bruges tower and looking down on Ray as he sits huddled on a bench in its shadow, a symbolic scene that illustrates the divide between them not through words, but through picture. Gradually, Ken becomes a father figure for Ray, who comes to respect him in a way that many younger people do when they finally connect with one of their elders. As time goes on, Ray starts smiling, greeting people around him. He meets a girl and they fall in love. Despite his prejudices, he befriends a dwarf that’s almost as grumpy as he was in the beginning of the film. This is the superficial layer of Ray’s path, what even the casual movie-goer can see and appreciate, but the second layer is Ray’s struggle to reconcile his past with the present. To come to terms with the fact that he murdered an innocent child, and to find the strength to become another person and, as Ken puts it ‘save the next little boy.’
One important part of the movie is the flashback to Ray’s first job and last job. He’s in the confessional, speaking to his target, a priest. After a brief conversation, Ray pulls out his gun and shoots the man twice. The priest staggers away from him and opens a door in an attempt to either escape or to make the child in the room behind said door run away. Ray never sees the boy, but instead fires a few more shots into the priest’s back as he stands in the doorway. Once the body falls to the floor Ray approaches the door and sees a little boy with a bullet in the side of his head, sitting on a bench with a piece of paper in his hands. Ray immediately falls to his knees in shock. He stands there, dumbfounded and on the edge of tears, before Ken runs in and drags him out of the shot, but the camera lingers on the two bodies, Ray’s handiwork. It’s important to note that some parts of the movie are seen through Ray’s eyes, and this is one of them. The camera staying behind and ignoring Ray and Ken’s escape from the scene is actually Ray’s thoughts. They never leave that room, he never forgets what he did to the boy. While in Bruges, it seems as if he’s trying to forget about it, but it never works. In one scene he tells Ken he’s had thirteen pints of beer, but he’s still not drunk in the slightest. His conscience is always there, never letting him rest. One night he parties with cocaine, hookers and alcohol and he seems to have all but forgotten about his sin. But in the morning he wakes up alone, Ken gone from their shared room in the hotel, and we see a close-up of his empty gaze and tears rolling down his face. This is a painfully realistic portrait of grief and sorrow, of how they never leave you, no matter how hard you try to hide from them. That morning he gives all his remaining money to the proprietor of the small family hotel they’re staying in and goes to a park. He watches the kids playing for a while and waits for them to leave his vicinity, before pulling out his gun and cocking it. Ken stops him at the last moment, and they have a heartfelt talk afterwards, where Ray breaks down.
The rest of the movie facilitates Ray’s spiritual change – he finds something to live for, he finds a way to forgive himself. He finally wants to live. But let’s take a step back from In Bruges and assess what the movie did to turn Ray from an anti-hero who fat-shames American families in the street and beats up Canadians into a young man who made a horrible mistake but truly wants to turn his life around.
Point of view – letting the viewer inside the head of the character is very important. We see his motivations, his fears, his regrets. The great orchestral score helps convey Ray’s pain and puts the viewer in his shoes. The scene where he kills the boy is truly chilling, thanks to the cinematography and Collin Farrell’s brilliant performance, we see the instant regret in Ray’s eyes, we see a precipitating event that changes the character.
Supporting characters – Ken is possibly the most important part of Ray’s redemption. He turns into a father figure for him, helps his through his toughest and darkest moments and at the end sacrifices himself to give Ray a chance at living out his new life. Ray’s childish behavior is, at first glance, a negative character trait, but looking more closely at the relationship between Ken and Ray, we see that Ray is still practically a kid. He isn’t fit for the world he got himself into and it’s quite possible that he had no choice either (Ray mentions doing what he did for money, no out of rage or hate or any other reason).
Change – it’s important to bear in mind that Ray is an anti-hero, not an antagonist. He isn’t necessarily good, but he isn’t particularly bad either (as the movie itself also points out during Ken and Ray’s discussion about purgatory). Ray goes through several phases before finally arriving at his destination – the desire to live. At the end, it feels as if the viewer’s gone through the same journey and experiences the same catharsis as Ray, making it almost impossible not to feel a genuine connection with the character.
And finally, actions have consequences. For a character to feel believable and to act like an actual human, he or she needs to bear the weight of causality. The accidental murder never once leaves Ray’s mind. It’s a monumental beacon in the sea that is his life and it’s impossible for him to ignore it. Every emotion that he experiences throughout the story is in some way affected by this one event, making him look, feel and sound like a real person, one that the viewer can establish a relationship with.