How “In Bruges” and “No Country for Old Men” Discuss Moral Choice, Part I
Content warning: This post references suicide and contains links to graphic scenes.
The topic of morality is one which has been discussed through film countless times and is likely to be discussed many more times into the future. It is nothing new for films to take some ethical position or to demonstrate conflicting ethical viewpoints. However, many such films take a very black-and-white view of morality: one where there is a ‘good’ and an ‘evil’, the good guy wins, and the bad guy gets their comeuppance in the end. Instead of discussing these films, I find it more interesting to look into films which discuss such topics with a bit more subtlety and nuance. I have seen very few films which discuss these topics with more nuance or impact than Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” and The Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”.
While both films may handle the subject matter of morality with very different tones (the former being a dark comedy and the latter being an atmospheric thriller), the comparison between the two seems interesting and warranted precisely because of their differences, as well as certain similarities: one might see the two as almost in conversation with each other, since the topics they discuss play so well into each other. In order to demonstrate this, I think it best to look into the 3 main characters of each film and compare them with reference to specific scenes in the film and the moral attitudes presented.
And yes, that does mean spoilers will follow for both films. So if you haven’t seen them yet, you might want to go watch them and then come back (because 1: I don’t want to ruin your experience of those films, 2: the following may not make a lot of sense without having done so and 3: they’re both well worth the watch anyway, at least in my opinion).
Ray’s character is the protagonist of the story- if one considers there to be just one in the story, which itself is not entirely clear. In any case, the plot revolves around him and around his experience in Bruges and as such he is intended to be likeable and sympathetic. This likeability is instantly in question, however, as soon as the audience are actually introduced to him: at first, he comes across as rude, selfish and childish. These things do become even more apparent as the film goes on, but I think that that’s the core of his character. Essentially, he is a child, a fact which lies at the heart of his likeability: he is never particularly malicious, just misguided and childish. While there are several instances of such childishness throughout the film, I think the following scene displays it perfectly in the way Ray feigns interest in what Ken is saying and is clearly bored throughout.
Ray spends the entire film paying for his actions after accidentally killing a child on a hit job. One can observe such consequences in the fact that it was the reason he was sent to Bruges in the first place and it is what he is shot for in the end. But, more importantly, Bruges is the site where he awaits his ‘final judgement’. Such an idea is first presented in the scene below, where Ray and Ken go to a museum to look at art, all of which revolves around the themes of death, punishment and judgement. Most notably among these is Hieronomous Bosch’s The Last Judgement, which depicts Jesus presiding over horrific scenes of torture and hellish creatures on judgement day.
This is then reflected later on in the scene in which Ray is shot by Harry, insofar as he is surrounded by people in masks and costumes that make them look like such hellish creatures, before being shot by the morally inflexible Harry who hitherto had conducted his business from afar instead of taking matters into his own hands. Harry, then, is the judge and Ray is the victim of his wrath. In accidentally killing the child, he has condemned himself to such a fate, but he is not fundamentally presented as an immoral person. As mentioned before, he is presented more as being childish than anything else and he deeply regrets his mistake, as shown time and time again throughout the film, even causing him to attempt suicide at one point in the film. This scene is perhaps the most important point in the film for demonstrating Ray’s journey as a character- it shows the extent of his regret and it shows the path that he might set upon because of Ken’s intervention- the path towards moral redemption.
This scene also, of course, highlights the importance of Ken’s character in the film’s discussion of morality. It is clear from the outset that Ken and Ray are both morally dubious at least by virtue of being hitmen. Ken more so perhaps than Ray, as a seasoned killer who has been in the business for many years (though Ken is presented as more polite and moral than Ray for the most part, perhaps because he is older and more mature). But ultimately it is Ken who goes on the most transformative journey in the entire film. He starts off as a strict and principled hitman who tries to “live a good life” in spite of the fact that he’s killed people, taking comfort in the fact that he only kills “bad” people and those who threaten him (though he does seem to express regret for the latter), but he ends up sacrificing his own life in order to give Ray a chance at redemption and in order that he might live his own happy life- to go on and to “save the next” child, making a positive impact on the world. He may never be presented as evil or particularly immoral, but it is clear that he is not exactly a ‘good’ man- he has killed before, including at least one innocent man, and almost kills Ray. It is his sacrifice, then, that redeems him, at least in the eyes of the audience.
Such a sacrifice is motivated by the fact that, for Ken, Ray has the potential to change and do good, where he himself is older and no longer has the same potential and Harry has the potential only to “get even worse”, which prompts Ken’s eventual confrontation with Harry. Here Ken resigns himself to Harry’s wrath but only by standing in defiance of his inflexible principles by doing what he thought was right. This can all be shown by the café scene where Harry and Ken meet face- to- face for the first time on- screen.
Here we see the nature of Ken’s motivation: he wants to enable Ray to make a difference, to change himself for the better. Whereas at the beginning of the film he perhaps thought it fine to stand by a rigid morality like Harry’s and to be complacent in leading a life that is at best morally grey, he redeems himself in the end by doing the right thing- by trying his best (and ultimately killing himself in doing so) to allow Ray to escape Harry and live out his life with the potential to do something good with his life. That is what leads him to defying Harry’s orders, thereby accepting his fate- giving his life for Ray’s. This culminates in the following scene (Warning: This scene contains quite a graphic and bloody depiction of suicide).
The scene at the café also shows the dichotomy between Ken and Harry’s moral beliefs. Harry, as shown here and throughout the film, is cruel and angry, but sees himself as being morally righteous, because he holds certain principles as absolute law. Such principles are his guidance, and those who do not obey them are subject to punishment. In the case of Ray, by virtue of being employed by Harry he is subject to the moral judgement of Harry and therefore sees himself become subject to the principles of morality on which Harry seemingly bases his entire life. I would be remiss to discuss Harry (or the film in general) without at least a side-note discussing religion, insofar as I take Harry’s strict adherence to such principles to be almost religious in nature, and take the theme of religion to be particularly important to the film in general.
The themes of religion are present throughout the film, from the aforementioned references to the last judgement, to the scene in the church mentioned above where Ken displays reverence for religion while Ray is uninterested, and to Ken’s discussion of how his catholic upbringing never really left him. It seems that such themes of religion are not only to highlight the themes of afterlife (heaven, hell, judgement and punishment) but also to the whole film set up a discussion of morality in the absence of religion. In other words, In Bruges can be taken, at least partially, as a discussion of how morality is formed by religion and how it can be formed in an increasingly secular society, a topic to which the setting- Bruges itself- is uniquely suited, given its abundance of religious buildings and landmarks, as well as the fact that it is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe (thus resembling a relic of the past preserved in modern day, similarly to how religion casts a shadow over modern society.
At the beginning of the film, it is clear that Ken has a certain reverence for religion, whereas Ray has no patience with the concept and doesn’t even care even about the prospect of touching Jesus’ own blood. Harry, however, is arguably the most like a religious believer in his absolute adherence to moral principles which he seems to believe are beyond himself, and yet is the only one who seems excessively cruel, aggressive and egoistic in his motivation and makes no reference to God or religion at all. It seems the character of Harry is an exploration of the idea of rigid moral principles without religion, and perhaps the best or most interesting thing about this discussion is that it is not inherently negative or positive: while Harry himself is a cruel man who is portrayed as morally questionable at least, he is a man who sticks to moral principles and who even goes against his own self interest in the end, killing himself because of such principles. He holds himself accountable to the same rules of “honour” and morality just as much as he holds Ray accountable, thus leaving the audience with the question: was he actually that bad, if he would be willing to kill himself for committing what he perceived to be an immoral act?
It seems then, that Harry’s “sins” are his inflexibility and the motivations behind his principles, not his lack of religion or his lack of moral principle, contrary to what many people may think of when they consider the idea of the “vicious killer”. His true ‘evil’ lies in the fact that he refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for his actions, yet follows a code which promotes violence and cruelty. Therefore, while he may be principled above all else, he is still intended to be viewed as a malevolent character.
The film, then, seems to give the overall message that there is always a choice when it comes to moral decision: that we can always choose to do the right thing. While some (like Harry) may be beyond redemption and may adopt rigid principles which are fundamentally misguided, for men like Ray and Ken (who, let’s not forget, are morally questionable themselves) there is a possibility of redemption. However, sometimes doing the right thing requires us to bypass rigid systems of morality and to just, to paraphrase the film’s Jimmy the racist dwarf, let our consciences decide. This is what Ken does in his sacrifice, and this is what Ray does in the final scene of the film when he commits to redeeming himself if he survives.