Sunday, August 26, 2012

In Bruges -- purgatory and honor

Director: Martin McDonagh, 2008. (R) 

How would you feel if you killed a person by accident? I imagine you'd be wracked with guilt and sorrow. That's pretty much how we find Ray (Colin Farrell) at the start of this film. The difference is that Ray is a hit-man. On his first job he kills the target and hits an innocent bystander. Now he and partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) have been sent bu London mob-boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to cool off and hide in Bruges, a quaint medieval town in the middle of Belgium.

The first part of the film is slow and cinematic, with the camera flowing over (and up and down) the various pieces of gothic architecture as these two Irish killers spend a day sight-seeing in Bruges. Ken, the older and wiser one, enjoys the respite from work. Ray, on the other hand, finds it all tedious and boring. He pines for the night life of London, the pubs and bowling alleys that would keep him entertained.

Then Ray meets Chloe (Clemence Poesy), a young woman working on the set of an indie film being shot in Bruges. She is selling drugs to a dwarf, a character who becomes critical to the developing plot.

It is when Harry calls to give further instructions to Ken that the film really takes off. This mobster with a deep sense of honor commands death and betrayal. When his instructions are ignored, he decides he must take matters into his own hands, thereby setting up a bloody finale that has as much irony as gore.

Farrell shines here as the emotionally-stricken gunman. His face conveys accurately the mixture of fickle feelings that oscillate like a yo-yo. He has delicate chemistry with Gleeson, whose world-weary pathos make him a beautiful foil. Both were nominated for the golden globe but Farrell deservedly won. Fiennes is also terrific as a caricature of a mobster. His lines are deliciously funny, even if they seem surprisingly unbefiting. Perhaps it is because of this that they are so comedic.

Here is one of the problems with the film. It cannot make up its mind what it is. Is it a film noir? Is it a comedy? Is it a thriller? One reviewer for Christianity Today suggested it might be "called a neo-noir crime comedy, or a postmodern Shakespearean tragedy, or even a medieval morality tale."  It's not truly a comedy, though the dialog is witty and biting. The first half is clearly a character-driven drama, but the second half veers towards action. It's caught in the middle.

That's probably for the best, given that its central theme is purgatory. At one point, Ken and Ray are viewing the Hieronymous Bosch painting of the last judgment, a horribly symbolic piece. Ray, the naive one, asks what it is and Ken replies, "Well, it's you know, the final day on earth, when mankind will be judged for the crimes they've committed and that." Ray, starting to grasp this, says: "Oh. And see who gets into heaven and who gets into hell and all that." Ken agrees: "Yeah. And what's that other place?" Ray: "Purgatory." Little do they realize, their time in Bruges is their very own form of purgatory, a waiting between judgment or redemption.

Purgatory is a peculiar concept specific to the Catholic faith. Its focus is on process not location. It is the purification of those who die in a state of grace through the process of temporary punishment. It has come to mean a place of waiting and suffering through this pain. Unlike the view of Ray and Ken, the Catholic church views those in purgatory as already knowing they will get to heaven, just when is the question. In contrast, in evangelical protestant church doctrine, purgatory has no place. There is no middle waiting ground. There is heaven and there is hell. Christ's blood has offered purification sufficient for both justification and sanctification. We do not need to suffer more.

Ray and Ken both feel a need to keep their professional job apart from their personal goodness, not wishing to end up in purgatory. In one dialog, Ken reflects: "And at the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile that with the fact that, yes, I have killed people." Here are two philosophical killers discussing theology and ethics.

Like many people, they want to think of themselves as good people, who strive to lead a good life and whose good deeds at the final judgment will outweigh their bad deeds. This view pictures St Peter holding a balance scale at the pearly gates and only letting in those whose good deeds win. This is really bad theology.

We all want to think that we can earn eternal life. This view is exemplified in the man who came up to Jesus and asked, " “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16) We want to contribute to our own personal salvation. Yet Paul made it clear in his epistle to the Ephesians, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast" (2:8-9). We cannot contribute even one iota to our salvation. Grace forbids this. 

Moreover, as much as we want to think that we can do good, the psalmist David says of all mankind, "They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good" (Psa. 14:1). The prophet Jeremiah adds, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure" (Jer. 17:9). This is the doctrine of total depravity. We are touched by original sin (Gen. 3) and cannot add good deeds.

Harry, on the other hand, has no qualms about purgatory. Instead, he is a man of principles, a criminal with a code of conduct. He is a man of honor who wants to be honored (cf. Psa. 45:11). But this is honor among thieves, and unfortunately this conduct includes betrayal and murder. When push comes to shove, he resorts to relying on himself. He cannot trust others.

Principles are fine. Codes of conducts are common these days in organizations. But none trump relationships. Ken understands this. He is willing to pay the price to give another a chance at redemption. Doesn't that sound familiar?

In the end, In Bruges leaves us hanging. We wait for closure but it is not there. What is there is excessive swearing and moments of gory violence. 

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs 

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