thoughts on responsibility…

note: this post was inspired by a viewing of the film In Bruges, and by necessity contains spoilers. so, if’n you don’t want to know what happens in the film, don’t read it.

i watched the movie In Bruges this weekend, and other than its being incredibly coarse and violently bloody, i found its apparent thematic center of personal responsibility fascinating.

not that i’m particularly bothered by vulgar language or graphic violence; it’s just that i find it unusual for a thought-provoking film to be profanity-laced and violent. that’s usually relegated to popcorn cinema.

In Bruges tells the story of two hit men; one, Ken, has been at the job for a long time. he seems to be a fairly nice man, for all that he’s a professional killer. his partner, Ray, is new to the profession – and has botched his very first hit by accidentally killing a child in addition to the target.

we meet the two after this event, as they have been sent to Bruges by their boss (ostensibly to hide out). yet we learn that Harry, the crime boss whom they work for, actually intends the trip as a pleasant send off for Ray – and that Ken is supposed to kill him.

this stems from Harry’s skewed “moral code” – as he says, “Ken, if I had killed a little kid, accidentally or otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I’d killed myself on the fucking spot. On the fucking spot. I would’ve stuck the gun in me mouth. On the fucking spot!”

Harry sees the child’s death as Ray’s responsibility, and Ray’s failure to kill himself as a failure to take personal responsibility.

yet Ray is acting on Harry’s orders – as Harry’s leman, any mistakes made by Ray are Harry’s mistakes. when an employee or follower is acting on orders, they are an extension of the employer’s will. mistakes made in good faith while following those orders are the responsibility of the leader just as much as the led. this follows whether the activity is legal or illegal; for example, though Third Mate Cousins failed to properly carry out Captain Hazelwood’s orders, thereby causing the Exxon Valdez oil spill, it was Hazelwood who was found liable. Cousins was acting in good faith as an agent of the vessel’s master, and therefore his mistakes were the master’s mistakes. though the job Ray was hired to do was murder other human beings, his situation vis-à-vis errors in the execution of his duties was no different than that of any other employee.

Harry’s blindness regarding this is emphasized by his reaction to Ray’s wounding of Eirik: “I mean basically if you’re robbing a man and you’re only carrying blanks and you allow your gun to be taken off you and you allow yourself to be shot in the eye with a blank which I assume that the person has to get quite close to you then, yeah really it’s all your fault for being such a poof, so why don’t you stop wingeing and cheer the fuck up.” it is telling that he is perfectly observant of the failings of others, but cannot see his own. in this, i think, Harry is the Everyman of the film. he is a coarse, violent man who abuses his subordinates and dotes on his children. which seem to be common traits in modern society, really.

Harry isn’t alone in his failings, though: none of the main, active characters in the film take responsibility for what they do. Ken kills people out of gratitude for Harry killing the man who slew his wife. Harry kills people as a business proposition (and he seems to have some extreme temper issues as well). Ray kills for money, pure and simple. Chloë sells drugs and robs tourists, even though she seems capable of productive work. Eirik’s a two-bit hood, and Jimmy’s got a massive drug problem.

the only character who seems normally morally centered is Marie, who serves as an object of attraction for Ken and model of what a citizen should be.

while considering the film’s take on responsibility, personal and otherwise, i thought about parallels in the real world. whether the current state of affairs in Iraq (and it’s not G.W. Bush’s responsibility; it’s ours, as the voting public) or the state of our schools, how many problems are the direct result of a failure to accept responsibility for what is our fault?

quote of the day:

“Plenty of alcoves in Bruges.” – Yuri


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