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"Almost like a fairy tale or something": defining the concept of neo-Proppian plot function in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges.


As we were walking through the streets, there was this kind of freezing fog hanging over everything, and it made it look almost like a fairy tale or something, and he turned to me and you know what he said?


What did he say?


He said "Ken, I know I'm awake, but I feel like I'm in a dream." (McDonagh 38-39)


In his book Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (1978), Seymour Chatman argues that plot consists of "the events of a story" or, as he reminds his reader, what Aristotle in The Poetics refers to as the "arrangement of the incidents" (Chatman 43). Structuralist narrative theory contends that "the arrangement is "the operation performed by discourse" (43). As Chatman suggests:
   The events in a story are turned into a plot by the discourse, the
   modus of presentation. The discourse can be manifested in various
   media, but it has an internal structure qualitatively different
   from any one of its possible manifestations. That is.
   story-as-discourse exists at a more general level than any
   particular objectification, any given movie, novel or whatever.

Chatman's argument represents an attempt to deal with the somewhat surprising realization that a particular plot can be realized in a variety of different forms, including novels, screenplays and filmic adaptations. What appears to lie behind this realization is the concept of an ideal plot located at a more general level than any of its particular manifestations, before it is realized in the form of a particular narrative discourse. Within the structuralist tradition, the most fully-realized synoptic account of plot structure is that of Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (68). For Propp, all fairy tales exhibit a single structure. They consist of 31 plot functions executed in an invariant sequence. For Propp, a plot function is understood as "the act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action" (21). In Story Logic (2004), however, David Herman puts forward an argument designed to isolate a central weakness in this model of narrative comprehension. Rehearsing an argument originally put forward by William O. Hendricks, Herman suggests that Propp's model fails to "specify the exact relation, in terms of sentence-constituency, etc., between the synopsis and the text [being synopsized]" (131). The Proppian model thus functions as an interpretive gloss on a text whose "bearing on the tale or myth under examination is never explicitly spelled out" (131). The criticism would appear to suggest that what Chatman sees as a central heuristically-enabling upshot of the concept of the plot is actually its fundamental weakness. The ideal form of the plot exists independently of any of its particular manifestations in discourse form, but there exists no means for translating that discourse form into the synopsis--or for translating the synopsis into the fully-fledged discourse form.

This seeming paradox points up the need for those who are concerned with the development of a neo-Proppian analysis to discover some workable strategies for relating the functions of the plot to the fictional or filmic discourse they purport to describe. Nonetheless, the idea that this task can be carried out in terms of a refined text grammar is fundamentally misguided; the individual units of this analysis do not correlate with individual sentences of the text. Instead, the units of analysis are those text segments that contain highly specific semantic meaning, namely, one or other of Propp's "act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action" ("Morphology" 21). These acts may be embedded in the form of significant voice-overs, written notes or meaningful gestures; they may also take the form of financial or gift exchanges, a series of speech exchanges, or major actions. A final method for executing certain plot functions, as both Aristotle and Propp note, are acts of recognition (Aristotle 18-19). The key defining feature of these text segments is whether the plot function in question is genuinely executed or not. In contrast, fictional discourse that is incoherent at the level of the plot misfires in some specific way. For example, without aesthetic motivation, a fictional discourse may simply omit certain plot functions: it may also execute the same function more than once; or it may execute an unusual or otherwise unsatisfactory sequence of functions.

Elements of a Neo-Proppian Synthesis

Vladimir Propp is not the only theorist who maintained that all stories contain a single invariant plot structure. In North America, both Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler have maintained versions of this basic position. Within this tradition, there is a clear tension between the commitment to the idea of a single invariant structure and the ambiguous acknowledgement that certain genres work differently or at least that some functions allow for genuine choice. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for example, Campbell is forced to define tragedy as unfinished comedy to obscure the obvious divergence between the two genres (28). On the website for his book The Writer's Journey, Christopher Vogler avoids the problem by analyzing only the plots of chronologically-ordinary narratives such as "contemporary dramas, comedies, romances, or action-adventures." His introduction to the stages of the main journey is preceded by a quote from Willard Cather which states: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before" (Vogler). In contrast, many literary theorists have embraced the idea that plots may be arranged in more than one order, with the Russian formalist distinction between fabula and syuzhet providing the jumping-off point for many discussions. In Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (1990), for example, Seymour Chatman, quoting David Bordwell, suggests that fabula "embodies the action as a chronological cause-and-effect chain of events occurring within a given duration and a spatial field" (125). In contrast, syuzhet refers to "the actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film" (Chatman 125). Nonetheless, for Chatman: "The fabula is a totally implicit--or, from the viewer's perspective, inferred structure"; he notes that this framework "relies upon more supple principles basic to all narratives" (125). In sum, Chatman suggests that neither fabula nor syuzhet "have any independent existence; they are all constructs proposed by theory, the better to explain the workings of film narrative" (126). In somewhat similar fashion, Gerard Genette's Narrative Discourse Revisited (1988) tends to cast doubt on the ultimate usefulness of the major distinctions that underlie multiple plot possibilities (histoire/recit; fable/sujet; story/narrative) (13-20), even while he concedes the reality of the distinction between chronologically-ordered narratives and those that employ a marked order (Genette 30). For Genette, much turns on the significance of the epic beginning in medias res, a concession that implies the reality of the distinction between narratives that do and narrative that do not begin in this way. Nonetheless, his resolution is to point up the limited duration of the analepsis that occurs at the beginning of the Illiad, implying that it is of limited importance alter all (Genette 30). The alternative position would be to recognize that Homeric epic as an example of a marked order narrative that begins with a marked zero function, the abduction of Helen by the Trojans.

In contrast, Vladimir Propp is committed to the idea of the fabula as a construct that possesses independent existence. What is more, when read carefully, the reality of this construct commits Propp to the idea that there exist two separate plot possibilities for the pivotal eighth function. In the first, a character strongly desires to have something; in the second, a character falls into a trap (Murphy, "Pivotal"). In chronologically-ordinary narratives, such as Cinderella-style romances, the pivotal eighth function involves an Enthusiastic Hero who strongly desires something; in marked order narratives, such as horror stories, the pivotal eighth function involves a Reluctant Hero who falls into a trap set by a Villain (Murphy, "Opening"). In the terms of evolutionary psychology, these stories are tales of reproduction and survival, respectively (Buss). What is more, the order of the cast of characters is not fixed, as Propp sometimes implies. For example, in some marked order narratives, the Villain executes both the pivotal eighth function and the twenty-fourth function, that of Unfounded Claims; in others, the Villain executes the pivotal eighth function, while a separate character, the Murderous False Hero, executes Unfounded Claims (Murphy, "Opening"). Nonetheless, Propp believed that this invariant sequence of 31 functions allows for plots to exhibit an "amazing multiformity, picturesqueness and colour" as well as a "no less striking uniformity" ("Morphology" 21). The present analysis takes its distance from Propp in its suggestion that plot multiformity is greater, while plot uniformity is somewhat less striking.

It would be comforting, of course, if analysis could stop with the ultimately idealist position that suggests that "story-as-discourse exists at a more general level than any of its possible manifestations" (Chatman 43). If this were so, Propp's original work would be enough. However, David Herman's challenge cannot go unanswered. In order to do this, a framework needs to be established for correlating the relevant semantic units of the fictional or filmic discourse with the neo-Proppian synopsis.

A Synopsis of In Bruges

Martin McDonagh's In Bruges (2008), starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, is a black comedy about a pair of Irish hitmen named Ken and Ray who are sent to hide out in the picturesque medieval town of Bruges in Belgium. They are ordered to do this by their boss, Harry Waters, after Ray inadvertently kills a young boy during his first assignment, the assassination of one of Harry's enemies, a priest named Father McHenry. On the first night, Ken and Ray go out together to explore the town and inadvertently miss Harry's phone call. The second night, while Ken stays in the hotel to await Harry's call, Ray, still reeling from the awfulness of his accidental killing of the little boy, goes out on a date with a seductive local girl named Chloe. With Ray absent, Ken receives his new instructions: Harry orders him to kill Ray for the death of the little boy. Reluctantly, Ken agrees; and Harry gives him the address of the local gun merchant. Meanwhile, Ray's date with Chloe starts to go horribly wrong. While Chloe is away in the bathroom, Ray gets into a dispute with a Canadian couple and ends up assaulting both the man and his girlfriend. When Ray and Chloe arrive back at Chloe's place, they are interrupted by the sudden intrusion of Chloe's boyfriend, Eirik. Eirik then tries to rob Ray, wielding first a gun loaded with blanks and then a knife. After successfully grabbing Eirik's gun, Ray disables Eirik by firing a blank into his eye. While Chloe leaves to escort Eirik to the hospital, Ray searches Chloe's apartment and finds drugs and a round of live bullets.

The next morning, Ray takes the momentous decision to end his own life in a local park, while the miserable Ken trails after him, reluctantly intent on carrying out Harry's orders. As he is about to pull the trigger, however, Ken is surprised to see Ray raising his own gun to his head; this action prevents Ken from carrying out Harry's orders. Meanwhile, the shock of discovering Ken ready to shoot him is enough to prevent Ray from killing himself. The pair agree to go somewhere in order to talk about what has happened, with the upshot being that Ken puts Ray on a train out of Bruges, telling him to keep moving, to stay well away from Harry Waters, and to start a new life altogether. For Ken, Ray's extreme anguish at killing an innocent little boy is sufficient proof that the young man is capable of redemption. Ken tells his companion that although Ray cannot bring the dead boy back, he can help the next little boy he finds. As a result, Ray sets off on the train, and Ken phones Harry to inform him what has happened. Infuriated, Harry immediately comes to Bruges himself in order to settle scores with Ken. They meet in a central square over a pint of beer and agree to go up the central bell tower in order to settle their dispute away from the crowds of Christmas tourists. In the meantime, a short distance outside Bruges, Ray is escorted off the train by the local police for his assault on the Canadian couple the previous evening. Back again in Bruges, Ray is met by Chloe, who bails him out of his prison cell; and the happy couple head off to celebrate their reunion in the central square immediately below the bell tower. Here, they are observed by Chloe's ex-boyfriend, Eirik, who that afternoon has accidently met Harry Waters at the home of the local gun merchant. In the bell tower, Ken tries to convince Harry that he has no intentions of fighting, because he respects his boss too much; and an emotional Harry ends up shooting Ken in the leg, rather than simply killing him. As the two men make their way down the bell tower, however, they hear the voice of Eirik shouting up the news that Ray is sitting in the main square. After a brief struggle, Harry fires a mortal wound into Ken's neck, before hurrying down in the hope of taking Ray by surprise. Undaunted, the mortally wounded Ken climbs up the bell tower in order to throw himself off in order to warn Ray of Harry's impending arrival and give his friend time to escape.

In terms of neo-Proppian analysis, what this synopsis describes is the set of functions that stretch from Absenteeism until the Uncovering of the Crime. This section of the film also includes a flashback to the zero function, the marked initial situation in which Ray carries out the assassination of Father McHenry and in the process accidently kills the little boy. What makes In Bruges such an engaging movie is the fact that both Ray and Ken carry out certain functions that are associated with the Reluctant Hero, some of which they execute together, some of which they execute in separate, parallel sequences. The result of this double plot structure serves to create the ironic brilliance associated with the two men's temporary reunion in the central square beneath the bell-tower, moments before Ken's death, just before the final shoot-out between Ray and Harry Waters commences.

Seven Methods for Executing the Functions of the Plot

The individual units of analysis consist of a variety of differentiated text segments within the fictional discourse. These segments consist of voice-overs, speech exchanges, meaningful gestures, written notes, financial exchanges, significant actions and acts of recognition. Their key defining feature is that each genuinely serves to execute a particular plot function.

In Bruges begins with a first-person voice-over by Ray:



After I killed them, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off my hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter. the instructions came through--'Get the fuck out of London, yous dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.' I didn't even know where Bruges fucking was.

Fade to black.



It's in Belgium. (McDonagh 3)

The voice-over here serves to execute both the zero and first functions. Ray first alludes to the Initially Marked Situation or zero function: before the story begins, Ray has assassinated a priest and accidently killed a little boy in the process. The first function is that of Absenteeism, in which Harry, their boss, remains out of reach, contacting them only by phone in order to give them the order to leave London and go to Bruges.

Written notes or recorded telephone messages may also be employed to carry out particular functions. On their first evening in Bruges, Ken and Ray go out together sightseeing, which allows Ray to get slightly drunk and briefly encounter Chloe. As a result, the hitmen miss Harry's first attempt to contact them. When Ken returns to the hotel alone, there is a message waiting for him from Harry. The message serves to re-execute the function of Requesting.



Number one, why aren't you in when I fucking told you to be in? Number two, why doesn't this hotel have phones with fucking voicemail and not I have to leave messages with the fucking receptionist? Number three, you better fucking be in tomorrow night when I fucking call again or there'll be fucking Hell to pay, I'm fucking telling you, Harry.

(McDonagh 16)

On their first night in Bruges, both Ken and Ray execute the function of Violation, by being absent when Harry calls. Nonetheless, since Harry merely restates his request that evening, the overall effect is to negate this initial Violation. It is thus only on the second night that the function is properly executed when Harry calls while Ray is out on his date with Chloe. As a result, it is Ray alone who executes the Violation function. What this means is that from this point on, Ken and Ray follow separate but parallel paths as Reluctant Heroes. Their paths diverge, only to intersect at two important points, the first will enable the execution of the Donor Function; the second will serve to Uncover the Crime.

Two separate speech exchanges between Ray and Chloe execute the plot functions of Reconnaissance and Delivery. These speech exchanges stretch over the course of two consecutive evenings. During the very first encounter, Chloe and Ray have the following short exchange:

Ray: My name's Ray. What's yours?

Chloe: Chloe. How did you get past the security man?

Ray: Getting past security men, it's sort of my job.

Chloe: You're a shoplifter?


No, not a shoplifter. It's a good joke, though. No. I'll tell you what I am at dinner tomorrow night. (McDonagh 15)

This scene demonstrates two important points. The first is the manner in which a particular plot function holds central place in a particular scene, even when that function is not immediately executed. In this scene, Chloe asks Ray what he does for a living, which in the context of the screenplay represents the execution of the Reconnaissance function. This is the case in spite of the fact that the Delivery function, Ray's truthful reply to this query, is not executed. In this way, the scene illustrates the manner in which a function may be triggered but not executed, provided that the next encounter between the two characters immediately revisits this function. Ray's stated willingness to answer Chloe's question, which is the point where their conversation ends, thus allows this plot function to be re-activated for proper execution on the following evening:

Chloe: So, what do you do, Raymond?

Ray: I shoot people for money.

Chloe: What kinds of people?

Ray: Priests. Children. You know, the usual. (McDonagh 28)

The relationship between the two speech exchanges here is relatively straightforward: Chloe asks two questions and Ray delivers two truthful answers, the clarification allowing Ray to state more precisely the nature of his work. Naturally, Ray might have answered Chloe's query with one utterance; it would also be possible to draw out the exchange a few more turns. What this demonstrates is that the semantic unit in which this pair of functions is embedded is defined in a somewhat supple manner. So long as both function are executed, the manner in which this takes place can vary. Intuitively, this would appear to form a central aspect of what a screenwriter is doing while rewriting a rough draft: he or she is attempting to gauge the appropriate length of text or screen-time that a particular function or sequence of functions ought to take up. The final point to note is that although Ray frames what he has to say as a joke, he is in fact telling the truth. This would tend to suggest that in certain kinds of screenplays the Reconnaissance-Delivery plot function pair need not require the characters to speak in a sincere manner, just so long as the truth is conveyed (Searle 1969; Austin, 1975; Derrida 1988). This explains the sense of dramatic irony that hovers over the scene: it is unclear whether Chloe truly realizes that Ray is speaking the truth.

The separate but parallel journey s of the two main figures explain why the two scenes involving Ray and Chloe that execute the Reconnaissance-Delivery functions are split up. The screenplay first presents the exchange where Harry orders Ken to kill Ray in order that the spectator will believe this plot pathway to be the most important. This artistic motivation follows from the principle of natural hierarchy: events that are presented first are deemed the most important; events that are presented second are deemed of subordinate or minor importance. In this way, the spectator is tricked into accepting Ray's adventures on the town as a temporary diversion for his restless, childish character, of little substantial importance. Naturally, the parallel plot pathways explored by Ken and Ray will eventually converge during the scene in the park. This unusual aspect of the plot helps to explain the situational discrepancy that hovers over this scene, where it is genuinely unclear which of the two characters, Ray or Ken, the spectator is supposed to identify with.

Significant action can also be used to execute a function. For example, one of the pair of sequences of Trickery-Complicity-Entrapment, the one involving Ray, is executed in the following manner:


(under breath)

Fucking unbelievable This is one of those situations where a normal person wouldn't react, even though he knows he ought to.


What's fucking unbelievable? The Guy ignores him. I said "What's fucking unbelievable?"


Are you talking to me?


He pauses, even though he should just hit the cunt. And he repeats. Yes, I am talking to you. What's fucking unbelievable?


Well, I'll tell you what's fucking unbelievable, shall I? Blowing cigarette smoke straight into myself and my girlfriend's face, that's fucking unbelievable!


This is the smoking section.


I don't care if it's the smoking section. All right? She directed it right in my face, man. I don't wanna ... die just because of your fucking arrogance.


Uh-huh. Isn't that what the Vietnamese used to say?


Vietnamese? What are you talking about, the Vietnamese? That statement makes no fucking sense at all.


Yes it does. The Vietnamese!


Well, saying it over and over ain't gonna make any more sense out of it. How does the Vietnamese have any relevance whatsoever to myself and my girlfriend having to breathe your friend's cigarette smoke? Tell me how saying ...

Ray punches the Guy clean in the jaw. He falls off his chair in an unconscious heap.


That's for John Lennon, you Yankee fucking cunt!

Suddenly his Girlfriend swings their wine bottle at Ray's head. Ray dodges, the bottle missing his head by a whisker.


A bottle?!

The Girlfriend tries to swing again.


No, don't bother.

Ray hits her in the chin too, and she collapses beside Guy. The other diners and waiters are stunned into silence. (McDonagh 31-32)

Trickery and Complicity are paired functions. They are executed when the Guy mutters under his breath, and Ray rises to the bait by verbally engaging with him. Here, the screenplay directive suggests a clear means for interpreting the whole sequence in terms of the Guy's Trickery. (This closes off the possibility of a misreading in which Ray is the one at fault for allowing himself to be provoked.) The major means for countering such interpretive possibilities is the concept of motivated situational redundancy. The concept of situational redundancy refers to the screenwriter's tendency to load the scene up with additional textual material to facilitate a particular interpretation of what is transpiring. The most obvious means for doing this is Ray's status as the Reluctant Hero. But this particular scene is also weighted down by such other factors as the nature of the complaint: the Guy objects to someone smoking in the smoking section of the restaurant; he also appears to hold Ray responsible for what is in fact Chloe's action, even though the latter is in the washroom at the time. Finally, the tendency of the spectator to side with Ray is secured by the Guy's inability to perceive the relevance of "the Vietnamese" to their argument. Nonetheless, the Entrapment function arises through significant action: Ray does hit both the Guy and his Girlfriend, in separate but connected sequence. By virtue of this physical assault, Ray falls into a trap, since he now becomes the object of a police manhunt. This is significant: it is because Ray is arrested on the charge of assault while on the train out of Bruges that he is forced to return to Bruges, where he will subsequently encounter the Murderous False Hero, Harry Waters.

Meaningful gestures can also serve to execute particular plot functions. When Ken meets Yuri in order to pick up the gun with which he intends to kill Ray, the screenplay reads as follows:


The room is like an arsenal semi-automatics all over the wall. Ken is given a handgun ...


Mr. Waters said that might be necessary.

... and a silencer Ken looks over the gun, attaches the silencer


There are a lot of alcoves in the Koningin Astrid Park. You use this word, 'alcoves'?


'Alcoves'? Yes. Sometimes.


Ken is still looking the gun over, somewhat sadly.


You are going to do it, aren't you? Mr. Waters will be very disappointed ...


Of course I'm going to fucking do it. It's what I do. (McDonagh 53)

In this scene, there is a mismatch between Ken's spoken words and his underlying intention. This creates the possibility of ambiguity in the translation from screenplay to filmic discourse. What is stated explicitly in the screenplay needs to be realized in terms of a meaningful gesture of sadness on the part of Brendan Gleeson, the actor who plays Ken. The directive that states that Ken looks over the gun "somewhat sadly" indicates his fundamental reluctance to kill Ray. Ken's reluctance to carry out Harry's orders serves as Mediation, the function in which the true feelings of the Reluctant Hero are suddenly made apparent. Since gestures are sometimes harder to read than spoken words, however, the spectator may come away from the scene believing that Ken really does intend to kill Ray. This possibility is naturally heightened by the mismatch between Ken's practical action, his decision to leave the hotel and walk to Yuri's house, which is set off against his supposed reluctance to kill Ray, conveyed by his sadness when he actually sees the gun. As a consequence, motivated situational overloading is also present in this scene. The proper execution of this function is helped by Yuri's comment, questioning Ken as to whether or not he intends to assassinate Ray, even though Ken, as a dedicated hitman, reassures the enigmatic Belgian that he will. Later still, when Yuri speaks with Harry, Yuri mentions his feeling that Ken seemed reluctant to carry out the assassination.

What this means is that the Mediation function can only truly be said to be executed when Ken actually refrains from killing Ray in the park. Up until this point, the ambiguous nature of the situation prevents the spectator from being entirely sure what will transpire. This ambiguity is less marked in the screenplay, where the directive may perhaps be said to execute the Mediation function cleanly. This analysis tends to suggest that filmic discourse is more ambiguous than screenplay discourse, if only in those scenes where characters have a vested interest in disguising their real intentions from others. In doing so, such characters may inadvertently disguise their real intentions from the spectator too. This emphasizes the importance of Propp's dictum: plot function involves an act of a character defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action. In turn, plot functions are only truly defined in the retrospective light of the finished tale.

Financial exchanges may also be used to execute functions. When Ray is recognized on the train by the Canadian Guy, the police bring him back to Bruges in order to stand trial. The trial is set for two days' time, and Ray is released on bail after Chloe agrees to pay the bail money:


Chloe waiting, Desk Constable doodling. She stands, excited, as Ray is released.


I'll get all the money back to you soon as I get through to me friend.


It's not a problem, Raymond.


And I'll get all your acid and your ecstasy back to you, too. The Desk Constable looks up.


(In French, subtitled)

English humor!

She quickly leads him out. (McDonagh 69)

Chloe's bailing out of Ray from the Bruges police station executes Ray's Victory function, an event that frees him up for his subsequent encounter with the dying Ken and the ensuing shoot-out with Harry. There is one other example of a plot function being executed by a financial exchange: this is Ray's Mediation function. On the morning when Ray decides to kill himself, he first approaches Marie, the pregnant hotel owner and offers all his money to her. Although Marie eventually returns the money to Ken, this financial exchange serves to indicate Ray's true desire to end his own life. This function is situationally overloaded by the fact of Ken discovering Ray's suicide note in the hotel room they share.

The final means for executing plot functions are acts of recognition, as both Aristotle and Propp realize. In McDonagh's In Bruges, the two most significant acts of recognition occur in the film's final scene. After chasing Ray back to his hotel room, Harry and Ray agree to suspend their gun fight temporarily in order to ensure that neither Marie nor her unborn baby is harmed. As a result, the gun fight recommences in earnest amidst the filming of a "homage" or "nod of the head" to Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. The weirdly fairy tale atmosphere of the movie-within-a-movie forms a dramatic contrast with the action of Harry as he murderously pursues Ray through the streets of Bruges. Since Harry has accepted a round of dum dum bullets from Yuri, his shots carry a particularly deadly impact. In shooting Ray in the back, Harry recreates the essential elements of Ray's own crime: but where Ray accidently kills a little boy, Harry inadvertently kills a dwarf actor named Jimmy, who is dressed as a schoolboy.


Ray slowly staggers into the middle of the misty set, which seems to be waiting for the freezing fog to clear. All the extras are dressed in strange, nightmarish costumes, many frighteningly similar to the demons and those terrorised by them in Bosch's "Last Judgement". Some have an identical bullet wound to Ray's, who staggers through all these, dizzily, horrified.

He tries to warn them of the danger from Harry, but they don't seem to understand. A little way off, Jimmy the dwarf gets up to see what all the fuss is about but can't quite see though the throng of people, so tries to push his way through them.

Ray falls to his knees at one point, but gets up and staggers on. Harry finally arrives, a few feet behind him and takes his gun back out. The extras don't seem to be sure if this isn't all part of their film somehow.

Ray suddenly stops dead in his tracks, stating at something in front of him, horrified.

Ray: The little boy.

Harry: That's right, Ray. The little boy.

Harry fires twice through Ray's back. Ray falls to his knees, then slumps to the ground, revealing to us, and to Harry, the body of Jimmy the dwarf, one of the bullets having passed through Ray and blown Jimmy's head off.

Ray crawls up beside him and touches him gently. He's obviously dead, and with his head half gone, and his school cap and uniform still intact, he looks just like a little dead boy. He looks that way to Harry, anyway, as he stands above the pair, horror-stricken. Harry looks at Ray, Ray looks at Harry.


Oh. I see.

Slowly, very slowly, Harry raises the gun and puts it in his own mouth.


No, Harry, no ...!

Harry takes the gun out again, taps it against his teeth a moment, thinking, then nods ...


You've got to stick to your principles.

Harry puts the gun back in his own mouth ...


Harry, no! He's not ...! ... and blows his own head completely off

Ray slumps back down. The gunshot rings in his ears and all other sound is gone as he is lifted onto a stretcher and led away.

Ray's point of view--looking up at the misty night sky and the roofs of the old buildings around as the snowfalls heavily ...



There's a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that'll never be opened.

Ray's point of view--of the strange Bosch figures looking down on him ...



And I thought, 'lf I survive all this, I'll go to that house ...

Ray's point of view--from somewhere almost heavenly, Marie's gentle, angelic, smiling face ...



... apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me ...

Ray's point of view--of one-eyed Eirik, looking as guilty as Judas, and the Bruges rooftops behind him ...



Prison, death, it didn't matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn't be in fucking Bruges.

Ray's point of view--of the dismayed, tear-stricken face of Chloe being dragged away from him, screaming (silently) ...



But then, like a flash, it came to me, and I realized, 'Fuck, man, maybe that's what Hell is. 'The entire rest of eternity spent in fucking Bruges!'

Ray's point of view--of the snowy night sky, then the Ambulancemen, whose grim countenance don't seem to hold out too much hope ...



And I really, really hoped I wouldn't die.

Ray's point of view--as he's loaded into the bright ambulance and the oxygen goes on ...



I really, really hoped I wouldn't die.


Cut to black. (McDonagh 85-87)

Acts of recognition are used to execute two functions here. The first is Harry's recognition that he must kill himself. This is actually based on a radical misrecognition of the situation: he believes he has killed a little boy, when he has in fact killed an adult dwarf. The second is Ray's recognition that he wants to live, which serves as a form of peripeteia, since Ray has wanted to kill himself since the very beginning of the screenplay (Aristotle 18).

Plot Function and Narrative Discourse

Understanding the central role of the execution of the plot functions in a screenplay does not exhaust the artistry of that screenplay's narrative discourse. In Morphology of the Folktale, Propp also devoted some attention to the concept of notification, a plot device whereby a new character--and by extension, the spectators--come to learn something that has previously taken place (Propp 71-74). Notifications, for Propp, are important because they allow one character to find out something from another. In this way, "a preceding function is joined to the one following" (Propp 73). One of the more beautiful aspects of Ken's heroic death is his concern not to harm any of the tourists who are gathered in the central square. In order to alert them, Ken takes out all the coins from his pocket and tosses them one by one over the side of the bell-tower. This scene has been beautifully prepared previously in an earlier scene in which a stern Belgian ticket-seller refuses to accept Ken's coins for payment when he first attempts to go up the bell-tower because Ken is ten cents short of the correct fee. In point of fact, of course, the scene in which Ken counts out his coins in front of the ticket-seller is unnecessary. It is not a function and could therefore be omitted from the filmic discourse. Nonetheless, it provides the basis for the creation of an extraordinary sense of pathos in the scene in which of the nineteenth function is so charged with emotion: the scene in which a mean ticket-seller refuses to accept anything except the exact entrance fee is funny; the second scene, in which Ken finally manages to get rid of all his loose change, and which executes the decisive nineteenth function, is extraordinarily touching. The way in which these two scenes complement each other demonstrates that the mere identification of all the plot functions is not enough. The texture of the filmic discourse shimmers with unexpected intra-filmic echoes and reverberations; an adequate stylistic analysis must also account for this too.

In a recent essay on In Bruges, John King has drawn attention to the manner in which the film utilizes "a combination of tonal registers in which irony and detachment, as markers of distinction, are blended with a more mainstream-oriented appeal to emotional engagement on the part of the viewer" (King 132). King notes how the high culture references to Welles's A Touch of Evil (1958) and Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) are strategically mixed with the lower cultural associations of demotic speech, random violence and the thriller genre, qualities King specifically associates with the work of the American director, Quentin Tarantino. A more immediate set of intertextual references for this quirky combination, however, is surely the genre of the British gangster movie, from Roeg and Cammell's Performance (1968), through Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday (1980), to Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). In each of these movies, that same complex blend of tonal registers is presented as the specific cultural achievement of the Cockney kingpin of the London underworld. Perhaps the most playful mark of cultural distinction in In Bruges is McDonagh's initially improbable choice of the upper-class actor Ralph Fiennes to reprise this role.

In Coming to Terms, Seymour Chatman notes the importance of the concept of style, by which he refers to the "film's systematic use of cinematic devices" (127). Arguably, the most striking set of such devices is the series of intertextual cinematic references that McDonagh's In Bruges makes to Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973). These exist both at the level of plot and that of the cinematic image itself. They include the fact that both movies begin with a child's death: Christine, in Don't Look Now; the little boy, in In Bruges. That both movies then transition to an extraordinarily picturesque European city, both of which feature churches, canals and narrow side streets: Venice, in Don't Look Now; Bruges, in In Bruges. That the central male character, racked with guilt, tries but fails to leave the city and inadvertently sets up a finale involving a long chase through the city's side streets to an unexpected death.

McDonagh's screenplay, however, also performs some peculiar transformations on the earlier movie's plot structure. In Don't Look Now, the Hero John is innocent of murder, while the Murderous False Hero, the dwarf woman, has previously killed people in Venice, a fate from which the Accidental Helper, the policeman, is unable to save John. In contrast, in In Bruges, it is the Hero Ray who is guilty of having committed murder in London, while the Accidental Helper, Jimmy, the dwarf actor, is innocent of any crime, and it is the Murderous False Hero, Harry Waters, who accidentally kills the dwarf-actor Jimmy, in a perhaps botched attempt to kill Ray. The texture of In Bruges, filmed with obvious knowingness in the "Venice of the North," shimmers with unexpected inter-filmic echoes and reverberations; those pitched at the level of the plot function require a detailed knowledge of the earlier film in order to render the latter's ending both more comprehensible and more aesthetically pleasing.


A workable method for relating the sequence of functions to the fictional discourse they purport to explain has long eluded literary critics of the plot. To modify Propp's formula, plot function involves the retrospective analysis of a character's action in terms of its significance for the course of the finished story. This essay has argued that plot functions are embedded in particular demarcated text segments that carry significant semantic meaning. It has argued that plot functions can be executed in a variety of ways, including by means of significant voice-overs, meaningful gestures, acts of recognition, written notes, financial exchanges, speech exchanges, and major actions.

Vladimir Propp noted the existence of groupings of particular plot functions, an acceptance which implies that the complete thirty-one function array can be broken up into a series of shorter sequences. For Propp, the principal plot sequences are the Preparation, Complication, Transference, Struggle, Return and Recognition. Full-length plots are built up out of these shorter self-contained sequences. One implication for the analysis of screenplay discourse is that the idea that the transitions between these shorter sequences may be associated with moments of stylistic alteration also. For example, in In Bruges, the transition between the ending of the Struggle sequence, which concludes with Ken's death, and the Return sequence, in which Ray is pursued by Harry, appears to mark a transition in filmic style, from pathos to thrills, or to adopt King's terminology, from culture to fun. At some level, the spectator recognizes these shorter sequences as inherently self-contained. In this way, a recognition of the autonomous nature of the shorter sequences would allow for the possibility of their distinct filmic stylization, should the screenplay writer desire to do this.

The broad outlines of this analysis also point up the genuine significance of apparently random parallels at the level of the plot, even across seemingly distinct genres. For example, the execution of the nineteenth function, Ken's death, which is achieved by means of a fall from a high tower in In Bruges is strikingly similar to the scene in Scorsese's The Departed(2006), in which Queenan is killed by being thrown off a high building. In both movies, the death of the sidekick Reluctant Hero serves to Uncover the Crime. setting up the film finale or shootout between the main Reluctant Hero and his murderous counterpart.

In a variety of substantial ways, then, neo-Proppian analysis can help to explain the familiarity with which we greet many stories. It can also help explain the feeling of pleasurable surprise a spectator experiences when a particular story breaks with a familiar pattern in order to achieve an aesthetically satisfying outcome. In this respect, this analysis appears to possess many of the basic requirements for moving the discussion of plot to a much greater level of narratological and stylistic sophistication.

Appendix One

Neo-Proppian Analysis of Martin MeDonagh's In Bruges

0. Marked Initial Situation: Before the story begins, Ray assassinates a priest, Father McHenry, accidently killing a little boy in the process.

I. Abdication: Harry Waters orders Ken and Ray to get to Bruges.

II. Request: Harry tells them to lie low and wait for his telephone call.

III. Violation: Ray goes out on a date with Chloe.

IV. Warning: Ken wonders aloud whether Harry might not have sent the two of them to Bruges on a job.

V. Ignoring: Ray doubts whether it would be possible to get guns in Bruges.

IV. Warning: Ken warns Ray to stay out of trouble on his date with Chloe.

V. Ignoring: Ray fails to pay sufficient attention to Ken's warning.

Ray leaves the hotel room in order to meet Chloe.

IV. Reconnaissance: Harry phones Ken to ask if Ray is having a good time in Bruges.

V. Delivery: Ken lies, saying that Ray thinks that he is in a fairy tale.

VI. Trickery: Harry asks Ken to make Ray leave the room.

VII. Complicity: Ken pretends to tell Ray to leave the room.

VIII. The Pivotal Eighth Function of Villainy: Harry orders Ken to kill Ray, or face death himself.

IV. Reconnaissance: Chloe asks Ray what he does for a living.

V. Delivery: Apparently joking, Ray answers truthfully that he kills priests and small children.

VI. Trickery: A Guy in the restaurant where Ray is meeting Chloe mutters beneath his breath in an effort to upset Ray.

VII. Complicity: Ray responds to the provocation.

VIII. The Pivotal Eighth Function of [Villainy.sub.1]: Ray hits the Canadian and his girlfriend, who has attacked Ray with a bottle.

VIII. The Pivotal Eighth Function of [Villainy.sub.2] In Chloe's apartment, Eirik threatens Ray with a knife, which provokes Ray into counterattack. As a result, Eirik ends up blinded in one eye.

IX. [Mediations.sub.1]. Ray discovers some real bullets in the apartment, which cheers him up (they are the means by which he will attempt to kill himself).

Ken and Ray meet up and drink beer together, before going off with Jimmy and two prostitutes for the evening.

IX. [Mediation.sub.2]: The next morning, Ray tries to offer Marie 200 Euros to give to her unborn child.

X. Counteraction: Ray writes a suicide note to Ken.

XI. Departure: Ray leaves the hotel in order to walk to the park.

IX. Mediation: Ken asks Yuri for the gun with which to kill Ray.

X. Counteraction: Ken appears sad at the prospect of killing Ray, which causes Yuri to doubt his intentions.

XI. Departure: Ken leaves the hotel in order to walk to the park, after Marie tells him Ray has been acting "odd."

XII. Information Donor Function: Ray sits on a park bench, seemingly intent on killing himself.

XII. Information Donor Function: Ken comes up behind Ray in the park, seemingly intent on killing him.

XIII. Hero's Reaction: Ray raises a gun to his own head in an attempt to commit suicide.

XIII. Hero's Reaction: Ken shouts out, distracting Ray from killing himself.

XIV. Receipt of Important Information: Ray convinces Ken that he is genuinely contrite about killing the little boy.

XIV. Receipt of Important Information: Ken tells Ray that Harry wants Ray dead and that Ray should go away somewhere in order to "save the next little boy."

XV. Spatial Transference: Ray is put on a train out of Bruges by Ken.

XV. Spatial Transference: By means of a phone call, Ken ensures that Harry leaves London in order to come to Bruges.

XVI. Struggle: Ken and Harry ascend the bell tower together.

XVII. Branding: Ken is shot in the foot by Harry.

XVIII. Victory: Ken succeeds in crawling to the top of the bell tower, despite his gunshot wound.

XVI. Struggle: Ray is recognized by the Canadian Guy on the train.

XVII. Branding: Ray is put into police handcuffs and brought back to Bruges.

XVIII. Victory: Chloe bails Ray out of prison, and they head off to the central square for a celebratory drink.

XIX. Uncovering of the Crime: Ken falls from the bell-tower in order to warn Ray about Harry, dying in front of the shocked tourists in the central square.

XX. Return: Ray flees the central square.

XXI. Pursuit: Harry follows after Ray, shooting wildly.

XXII. Rescue: Ray temporarily loses Harry in the backstreets.

XXIII. Unrecognized Arrival: Ray arrives back at the hotel, without Harry knowing.

XXIV. Unfounded Claims: Harry comes into the hotel and confronts Marie, intent on punishing Ray for killing a little boy.

XXV. Difficult Task: Ray attempts to defeat Harry, without killing any more innocent people.

XXVI. Solution: Ray is shot four times, with live dumdum bullets, but does not die.

XXVII. Recognition: On the cusp of death, being loaded into an ambulance and hooked up to a life-support system, Ray realizes that he wants to live.

XXVIII. Exposure: Harry believes that he has killed a little boy and recognizes he must now kill himself "on the spot."

XXIX. Punishment: Harry commits suicide, to compensate for his accidental murder of Jimmy.

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Terence Patrick Murphy

Yonsei University
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Date:Mar 22, 2012
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