In Bruges is a hard movie to describe. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Bruges might be called a neo-noir crime comedy, or a postmodern Shakespearean tragedy, or even a medieval morality tale. It looks and feels like a lot of things, but at the end of the day Bruges is about crime, punishment, and spiritual descent.
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are Ray and Ken—an unlikely pair of Irish hitmen sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out in Bruges (pronounced "brooze"), Belgium. They are working-class mobsters: principled yet bumbling, efficient yet emotional. And Harry is their Tony Soprano. In Bruges, Ray and Ken are in a state of limbo; their instructions are to wait for further instructions from Harry. While they wait, Ray and Ken pose as tourists: staying at a homey guest house in the old town, taking canal rides through the city, visiting museums and cathedrals, etc.
What might be an otherwise pleasant vacation in an idyllic Flemish town (supposedly the most well-preserved medieval city in Belgium), however, is tainted by the psychological baggage that accompanies the criminal pair. Ray and Ken have just completed a particularly bloody job in London in which the target (a priest) was killed, along with an innocent praying child who caught a stray bullet. Triggerman Ray is paralyzed by guilt from his incidental child homicide, however, and Bruges is the last place he wants to be as he suffers under a dark conscience.
To get Ray's mind on other things, the kind-hearted Ken (the more cultured and professional of the two) insists that Ray accompanies him to the various historical and cultural attractions of Bruges. Here we get our own tour of the beautiful European city, following our protagonists into sites like the Groeninge art museum, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and the 250-foot Bell Tower (which plays an important role in the film's climax).
The first three quarters of the film embody the feeling that Bruges is meant to represent: Purgatory. It's a place where sinners are stuck in unresolved spiritual disequilibrium—somewhere between eternal guilt (hell) and undeserved redemption (heaven). Indeed, the subject of Purgatory comes up in conversation between Ray and Ken (as they look on macabre Bosch paintings in a medieval museum), and there is a sense that both men recognize that Bruges is, unfortunately, their last stop (and last chance) on the road toward either redemption or reckoning.
Ray faces this fact with despair and self-destructive behavior. Colin Farrell impressively captures a soul in utter torment that is desperately searching for last-gasp moments of happiness. He meets a charming woman named Chloë (Clémence Poésy) who might be his only hope. But Chloë has her own toxic issues, and it soon becomes clear that if Ray is to be saved he will have to save himself. Meanwhile Ray befriends a dwarf American actor (Jordan Prentice) in town filming a European art film. Add some drugs, alcohol, Dutch prostitutes and a suicide attempt, and the bloke's road to recovery seems ever more unlikely.