In The New Christmas Canon, The A.V. Club looks beyond Rudolph’s nose and Zuzu’s petals to highlight entertainment from the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s that’s become a seasonal staple—or deserves to.
Amidst the bright lights, the crackling fires, and the good cheer, the Christmas season has always retained a melancholic edge. This emotional undercurrent is most likely the result of myriad reasons—the oppressive weight of seasonal jubilee, the extended time spent with family, the unavoidable crass commercialism—but one stands out more than the most: The constant reminder of one’s own mortality. It’s easier to ignore the inevitable facts of aging and death in the spring and summer months when the sun shines brightest. During the longest, coldest nights of December, the harsh truths of life creep out from underneath the darkest places within us. Christmas is a notoriously existential holiday because the inescapable downtime often forces a quiet contemplation about life—the mistakes, the failures, and the regrets. Is it any wonder that so many holiday classics, from A Christmas Carol to A Charlie Brown Christmas, have such a heavy-hearted tone?
Martin McDonagh’s debut feature In Bruges only mentions the word “Christmas” a couple of times, but the existential weight of the season hangs so strongly over the film that it’s unnecessary to underline it any further. The story of two hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) camped out in Bruges, Belgium, after a murder gone wrong functions as a Christmas film precisely because it deeply inhabits the season’s pensive nature. For its first half, In Bruges more or less operates as a vulgar comedy, much of it featuring Ray and Ken sightseeing around Bruges, like the stars of a crude The Odd Couple Goes To Belgium. It even has a religious bent to it, as the characters struggle with how the realities of their profession brush up against their ingrained Catholic morality. But more than that, In Bruges, like the Christmas holiday, adopts a light veneer mainly as a smokescreen for something much darker—in this case, heady discussions about the guilt and consequences of breaking ironclad moral principles, specifically Ray’s accidental murder of a child. In effect, In Bruges is a moral parable gussied up to look like a Euro vacation film.
Like many Christmas films, In Bruges doesn’t hide its existential core. Unlike many Christmas films, it does foreground said existentialism’s literary influences. An accomplished playwright, McDonagh follows in the tradition of classic two-handers like Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Like Ben and Gus or Vladimir and Estragon before them, Ray and Ken wait for vague instructions from their handler Harry (Ralph Fiennes) in an unfamiliar location that becomes more unsettling over time. They have circular debates about whether Harry will call their hotel. They argue about the merits and flaws of their hideout. They sightsee various churches, ride canal boats, and visit museums in an effort to distract themselves from their moral quandary. But neither of them can ignore Ray’s grave mistake for very long, and McDonagh, unlike Pinter or Beckett, eventually forces his protagonists to reckon with their sins instead of letting them stew in the dread of their paused existence.
Moreover, McDonagh uses the setting of Bruges as a malleable stage upon which the film’s protagonist can exercise and project their respective guilt. He initially films In Bruges like a travelogue, showcasing the Belgium city’s medieval architecture and religious history without clumsily foregrounding it. By having Ray and Ken simply traverse the city on foot, McDonagh captures Bruges’ picturesque beauty while keeping it mainly in the background. (In his review, Roger Ebert mentions that if In Bruges accomplished nothing else, it inspired in him “an urgent desire to visit Bruges.”) But then McDonagh and Danish cinematographer Eigil Bryld subtly morph the quaint backdrop into a dark Boschian nightmare filled with surreal characters and violent exchanges. It becomes less of an old-fashioned getaway and more of a wintry nightmare that traps its subjects and holds them hostage. Throughout the film, Ken finds Bruges charming and delightful, while Ray constantly calls it a “shithole.” McDonagh illustrates that both descriptions are apt: It’s a “fucking fairy tale” gone awry.
Yet it’s the actual substance of In Bruges’ moral dilemmas that keeps it in line with the melancholic Christmas spirit. Ray, Ken, and Harry spend much of the film openly discussing the worth of a person’s life in light of the sins they’ve committed. Suicidal and despondent, Ray believes in no uncertain terms that he deserves to die for accidentally killing a child, and Harry agrees, demanding that Ken kill Ray for his transgression. On the other hand, Ken argues that the true power of moral strength is forgiveness, and to live with and learn from the mistakes you’ve made. He understands that a lifetime spent atoning for a sin is more fruitful than killing yourself to end the suffering. It’s telling that while In Bruges grounds these discussions in concrete life-or-death terms, they still mainly focus on the characters’ moral fiber. It accounts for the film’s elegiac tone, powerfully emphasized by Carter Burwell’s mournful piano score, as if the fates of its subjects have already been sealed, and all that’s left to save are their souls.
But McDonagh finds a way to ultimately spin this moral quandary as a story of hope, just like the best Christmas stories. In Bruges actively argues that no one’s soul is beyond saving. Despite the funny lines, McDonagh never lets you forget that his subjects are violent men and that the conscious choices they’ve made have damned them in this life. But he also demonstrates that it’s the gestures of goodness and the sacrifices one makes that can save them in the next. Ken throws himself off Bruges’ belfry so that Ray can have a second chance at life. A pregnant hotel operator (Thekla Reuten) refuses to let Harry walk through her hotel to kill Ray, not knowing that the person she’s protecting has already killed one child. After seeing these brave acts, Ray chooses life not long after wanting to throw it away.
The Christmas film canon is filled with movies that couch existential questions within a narrative of redemption, but In Bruges foregrounds its existentialism within a narrative of absolution. McDonagh knows that there’s no redemption for his characters, and that the best they’re going to get is a trip to Bruges, a scenic purgatory in which to contemplate their lives. But In Bruges also serves as a reminder that you can crawl out from underneath the weight of the Christmas season and emerge anew, that the near-constant reminder of the passage of time can inspire you to live in the moment. If at its best Christmas is about finding the light amidst all the darkness, then In Bruges celebrates the epiphanic understanding one reaches when they discover there’s still hope through all the suffering, even if it comes just a little too late.