In Bruges is an excellent example of the mantra: “Screenplay = Simple Plot, Complex Characters”. A single incident — Ray’s accidental shooting of an innocent bystander — sets everything into motion and touches every character in every moment, either directly or indirectly. The central question of the story — What will happen to Ray (either murdered or suicide) — is based on the tragic killing. Harry’s existence in the story provides the looming threat which grows in intensity as Harry makes his way to Bruges.
While Harry is a pretty straight-ahead character, bound by his own ‘moral’ code of hit man ‘ethics’ — comparable to Chigurh in No Country for Old Men — both Ray and especially Ken prove to be complex figures. Ray, a hit man struggling with guilt, fascinated with the movie business, both empathetic to others, but easily provoked to rage; Ken, curious about life, history, culture, open to new experiences, willing to sacrifice his own life to save Ray’s.
Both Ray and Ken grapple with the existential question at the heart of most stories: Who am I? Ultimately, they both reject being hit men, embracing some version of their Inner Humanity, already present within, but suppressed up to this point by their employment as hit men.
The plot is simple, not simplistic, and that is a significant difference. There are twists and turns, and surprising elements as with the movie shoot, the irony of the Canadian couple ending up on the same train as Ray, responsible for Ray ending up back in Bruges. The movie is one of those stories where the plot feels both inevitable, yet unexpected.
Frankly, the Simple Plot, Complex Characters is a feature in all McDonagh movies. He’s just damn good at it. The more we study his stories, both their structure and their characters, the more we benefit our own writing.