The Last Judgment is a 15th Century triptych painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting man’s banishment from the peaceful Garden of Eden down to the depths of Satan’s eternal hellscape, a vengeful God’s ultimate punishment for our worst sins. Hitman-in-hiding Ray (Colin Farrell) finds the scene oddly reminiscent of Bruges, the Belgian city in which he’s found himself trapped for the foreseeable future. After he accidentally kills a child who got in the way of a job (a hit on a priest, no less), Ray and his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent to the far-off city to lay low until the heat dies down enough for boss man Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to give them the all clear to come home. Though Ray finds the city’s medieval canals and Gothic aesthetic profoundly boring, the older and wiser Ken is eager to explore all the history and character that Bruges has to offer. It’s Christmastime, after all, and as the men contemplate the nature of mortality (by way of cocaine, alcohol, and prostitutes), they discover that Bruges isn’t hell, but a purgatory, a way station between the life they left behind and the uncertain future ahead.
But the heavenly beauty of Bruges can’t fully mask the pall of death that hangs over Ken and Ray’s time there. Their cultural field trips take them to countless museums and churches (places of judgment and repentance), and everything from the books Ken reads (The Death of Capone) to the movies he watches (Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil) evokes a real sense of fatalistic anxiety. Even the film Jimmy the Actor (Jordan Prentice) is working on is described as “a pastiche of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now,” a story about grief, guilt, and loss. While the two men hope to return home safely after a short time, the truth is that neither truly knows exactly why they’re in Bruges or when they’ll get to leave. They’re waiting for judgment from Harry (their God figure), who will eventually rule that the young Ray must die for his indiscretion; you can't kill a kid, he says, and just get away with it. Harry’s immovable code of ethics cements his position as the Godlike moral authority and creates an imperative for Ken to carry out the sentence, lest he give up his own honor. Since he cannot betray the man who hunted down his wife’s killer, Ken takes the assignment.
*While the shooting script makes it clear that Ray survives his wounds, the ambiguous ending of the film makes far more sense.