Every year in the lead-up to Christmas we are treated to arguments about Christmas movies, and every year a contingent of wise guys declare that the best of them is Die Hard. (One might call them the try-hards.) I have never seen Die Hard but I don’t really need to have seen it to dispute this claim. Nor—if you’re playing this game—is the best Christmas movie Eyes Wide Shut, the Stanley Kubrick film in which Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman try to cheat on each other but never seem to manage it. And it certainly isn’t Elle, the Dutch drama about a woman who is blasé about her own rape.
Yes, these movies take place at Christmas; yes, they are good movies; Eyes Wide Shut, yes, has some Christmas overtones. But even if you were to call them “Christmas movies,” they would not be the best Christmas movie, because the best Christmas movie is In Bruges. At this point I fear that the perhaps whimsical tone of this piece will lead some readers to believe I’m joking. I am not joking.
In Bruges is the story of two hitmen who are instructed to hide out in, well, Bruges after a hit goes wrong. It turns out one of the hitmen, Ray (played by a very winning Colin Farrell) was sent to kill a priest but accidentally also killed a child with a stray bullet. There Ray and his mentor-slash-handler Ken (Brendan Gleeson) await a call from their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes). Incidentally, it’s also Christmas. It turns out that they’re in Bruges because Harry wanted to do one nice thing for Ray before he had him killed. “If I had killed a little kid,” Harry tells Ken, “accidentally or otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I’d have killed myself on the fucking spot.”
So maybe this isn’t a movie you will want to watch with your family. It’s violent and often crude. Christmas is practically never referenced, though it’s ever-present in the background (they do stay in an inn run by a pregnant woman) and the death of the child will make any religiously literate viewer remember the Holy Innocents.
But what makes In Bruges a Christmas movie is that it is a careful examination of justice. Everything done in the first half of the movie returns in the second. The tourist who Ray treats rudely in the first half does him a bad turn in the second, and so on.