You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
For this instalment, Imogen Gardam looks at Rian Johnson’s 2008 film, The Brothers Bloom.
There’s a point quite early on in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, in the opening prologue, during which a dissenting voice is raised, heard and dismissed. As a young Bloom, aspiring con man, spins a tale of a hermit in the woods for the rich kids of the town, one is heard making derisive noises, prompting another kid to snap, “Shut up Dave.” It’s at this point that we, also, have to tell our most derisive and disbelieving selves to shut up. The Brothers Bloom begins in unbelievable territory, with a rhyming narration (from David Mamet alumnus Ricky Jay no less), smartly dressed child grifters and a one-legged cat on a roller skate, and gets less realistic from then on out. It’s stylised to a tee, over the top and convoluted. It’s an old school caper film with a little more self-reflexivity than most. So if as an audience we’re asked to get on board in those opening scenes, to suspend our disbelief for the moment, it’s only really in anticipation of how far that will be stretched by the end of the film. It’s an early pact between filmmaker and audience, in a film ultimately concerned with storytelling and how we relate to the tales we spin. And it pays off.
The Brothers Bloom follows the eponymous brothers who joined forces for survival in their early foster care days – brothers in name only but joined at the hip. Travelling from town to town and family to family, they hit upon their calling as Stephen, the elder brother, figures out a way to give the younger brother Bloom the normal life that he wants, and to turn a profit, making him befriend the local rich kids only to lead them astray in a racket organised with the local dry cleaner. Years later, we pick them up at the end of another brilliantly executed con with their offsider, a mute and mysterious explosions expert Bang Bang, rendered brilliantly by Rinko Kikuchi. Bloom, played by a glum Adrian Brody, is sick of it all, wants to live “an unwritten life” and wants out. Mark Ruffalo’s Stephen convinces him to pull one last con, introducing him to Penelope (Rachel Weisz), their final mark. She’s a beautiful eccentric heiress who lives alone in a New Jersey mansion, lonely and perfectly placed to be swept up on an adventure. Stephen warns Bloom that he can’t fall in love with her – so of course he does. But if, as Stephen argues, the perfect con is one in which everyone gets exactly what he wants, is Penelope the real mark, or is Stephen writing Bloom the perfect con?
The Brothers Bloom exists outside of any particular time period – our protagonists are prone to wearing beautiful suits, driving vintage cars and travelling on steamer boats with luggage out of a Louis Vutton catalogue, but the rest of the world does contain such things as helicopters, the latest Lamborghinis and even a mobile phone. Just as Bloom and Stephen set out to sweep Penelope off her feet on an adventure that will leave her happy even as they fleece her, so too does Johnson sweep us up in the beautiful, illogical look of the film. Johnson cites Fellini’s 8 ½ and Bertolucci’s The Conformist as inspiration for the visual style, though perhaps via Wes Anderson. In terms of plot, the biggest influence is Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, which gave Johnson the relationship-based approach to the caper, delivering a con film with a little more heart.
Rian Johnson burst on to the independent film scene in 2005 with the Sundance hit Brick, a high school film noir that pitted Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Chandleresque Brendan against a local heroin ring following to death of his ex-girlfriend Emily. Brick married the most famous and recognisable elements of film noir with a high school setting and characters without trivialising them, delivering a stylish and slick deadpan hardboiled thriller that only occasionally laughed at itself. That slickness did not extend to the film’s production values – famously shot for $450 000 raised from family and friends on the definition of a shoestring budget, Brick features atrocious sound mix that often obscures the sharp, well-written and crucial dialogue. The score, evocative of the minimalist jazz scores of the 1940s, was written and recorded by Johnson’s cousin Nathan Johnson on household implements such as spoons, wine glasses and bottles. It also features one of my favourite cheats in a film, a low spinning pan of a speeding car rushing towards our protagonist, rendered through sound design and a shaky camera and a completely stationary car.
If Brick was rich in storytelling but short on cash, The Brothers Bloom proves what Johnson can do with more funding – albeit only $20 million, a comparatively modest budget for a film with such an ambitious scope. The locations are exotic and diverse, and the costumes are beautiful. Nathan Johnson’s score swings from orchestral to gypsy, big band to solo piano, encompassing and delivering a huge range of emotion – the last track on the score, “The Perfect Con”, executes one of the biggest tonal shifts of the film in one single track, underpinning the most emotional and revelatory moment without overplaying its hand.
The Brothers Bloom is ultimately concerned with truth – Bloom is a tragic hero who wants an unwritten life but doesn’t know how to live one. His time without Stephen is spent drinking in Montenegro, and for all he claims he is done with cons, he is most at home playing a character written for him by someone who loves and knows him best where, “being who he wasn’t, could be as he wished to be”. Bloom is a perfect stand in for the audience – our own escapism and the refuge we find in film is in conflict with our desire for realism in those films. Our relationship with what we see on screen is inherently at odds with what we want. We know that what we’re watching is a construction, but we ask that it’s realistically delivered despite knowing that it’s false. Thus we complain that plots were unbelievable, that we could see the boom mic in the top corner of the screen, that the effects weren’t lifelike. We know the process behind the lie, but we want to be fooled by it for the two hours that we spend with it.
So Johnson gives us a surrogate in the form of Bloom, and turns that desire back on us through a multi-layered plot set in a familiar canon. He delivers a beautifully rendered lie but constantly undermines us as to what is the truth within that lie. This is a film that rewards multiple viewings, as we peel back the layers to the action on screen. Stephen is the master screenwriter, executing the perfect con over Penelope, Bloom and the audience, giving us all what we want but keeping us guessing as to the truth right up to the end. Ultimately it’s the only thing he can’t fake, real blood, that gives him away, and by then it’s too late.
Towards the end of the second act it feels like Johnson begins to loose his grip a little. After the burst of violence and moment of truth on the beach in Mexico, the scripting is less tight and the plot begins to feel overly-convoluted. But it is at this point that I feel that we are closest to Bloom as our stand-in. The lines between the con and the truth begin to blur and we find ourselves guessing with Bloom as to what’s real. It’s not as well executed as the rest of the film, and feels like it drags on a little longer than needed, but for the weakest act of the film it is all the more engaging, and delivers a finale that justifies the confused plotting that preceded it.
Rachel Weisz is the surprising centre of the film, which was initially called Penelope. She is crucial to both Stephen’s and Johnson’s con, the obvious mark and the quirky manic pixie dream girl who is soon revealed to be too strange to be fake. She is weird, in the most unbeguiling way. Her monologue about Bloom’s constipated soul is bizarre and almost unpleasant – introduced as Bloom’s perfect woman and fantasy, she takes on a complete and uncompromising life of her own as a character. There is almost a sense of a male gaze present in the way Stephen writes the cons, which Penelope undermines though sheer absurdity. As a mark and as a standard and recognisable character – the love interest, the beautiful woman, the manic pixie dream girl, whatever you want to call her – both the brothers and the audience have certain expectations of her that are defied almost immediately. She’s expected to crash her car into Bloom and feel deeply sorry from his hospital bedside. Instead, she has an epileptic fit and he is the one that sits by her bedside. She’s expected to care about getting her money back, on which the entire showdown in Mexico hinges – she doesn’t want it. She does, ultimately, fulfil one crucial role expected of her by the audience, which is to make Bloom better, in the tradition of the most exploitative male fantasy manic pixie dream girls. To quote Nathan Rabin, she does teach a broodingly soulful young man to “embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”. That said, this feels quite satisfying in the context of the film and less like a concession to convention or a cop out on character – she does this so completely in her own, weird way.
Following his break-out hit, Johnson faced a lot of pressure and scrutiny for his follow-up film, as do all debut filmmakers and particularly those of the Sundance variety. The Brothers Bloom is miles away from the drab schoolyard of Brick, but remains rooted into Johnson’s fascination with genre. It proves that he is anything but a one-trick pony, but can still deliver what made Brick so good, with a script that uses genre with a confidence that belies his age or filmography.
I can’t recommend re-watching this film enough – a bit of hindsight makes it an entirely different film, and Johnson signposts much of the plot in with subtle foreshadowing that can often be lost in the noise of the adventure. The Brothers Bloom is a film with a lot to offer on many levels, from plotting to performances, design and music to simple fun. It questions and undermines our relationship with storytelling without losing sight of its goal to entertain. There is no condescension in Johnson’s final thesis on the unwritten life, no finger pointing at his audience for wanting to believe what they know is not real. Instead, he celebrates the high standard we demand of our storytelling and the complexity of our rapport thereof, and delivers on almost every point.
Dominic Barlow: My big hope with Rian Johnson being tasked on the upcoming Star Wars films (writing Episodes VIII and IX, directing VIII) is that his past films are given a more wholesome appraisal than that narrow one handed down by the logic-obsessed CinemaSins-es of the world. It goes double for The Brothers Bloom, a movie so overlooked that its spot in the Filmography section of Johnson’s Wiki is practically squashed between the lists of awards for Brick and Looper. As we saw most frequently with the latter, and as Imogen has pointed out, Bloom is the defiant enemy of plot-hole pokers. It barely makes sense and it’s not aspiring to, because the brothers’ labyrinthine schemes are way less important than their rapport, which fluctuates throughout the film along with Bloom’s suspicions of what’s written and what’s not. This is why Imogen is right to single out its production design by Jim Clay (a far cry from his work on Children of Men), since it locks the setting in a timeless, high-wattage haze that complements us being led merrily on in the chase. Rather than paranoid suspense, Johnson’s effortless writing, sterling cast and clockwork visuals (through recurrent DOP Steve Yedlin) buoy the tone into a kind of slick whimsy… which, come to think of it, describes the best of Star Wars as well.
It’s also interesting that Imogen should dismiss the patchy logic of the plot and then find it overly convoluted towards the end. This speaks to the truth that the feeling of a film is more important than its correlation to our reality, just as the emotional responses of the brothers’ marks are crucial to their success (see the girl that Imogen points out, or Charleston, the putz in the first modern-day scene played by real-world magician Andy Nyman). It’s unfortunately true, however, that the feeling of Bloom tires a bit as it slows to its bittersweet end; a trait which I suspect made critics indifferent at release. I’m also not entirely sure of his decisions regarding Weisz’s Penelope character, since – distinctive as she is with her many hobbies and… thunderstorm-induced orgasms? – she is still very much here to fulfill a sadsack male character’s life journey rather than her own, which is a bummer. Rinko Kikuchi’s Bang Bang almost picks up the slack with a magnetic performance that demands its own movie, but the emotional rigidity of this one still remains. Maybe a murderous psychokinetic child would have done the trick.
Lidiya Josifova: Giving his filmography the once-over, I was initially surprised to realise how diverse Rian Johnson’s body of work has been thus far. But: having seen the great, frolicsome Brothers Bloom, it’s become clear that Johnson knows his way around genres – and even how to manipulate them to great effect. The Brothers Bloom was just as captivating as promised. The metaphor of the con, paralleling brothers Bloom (Brody) and Stephen’s (Ruffalo) journey as they seek to dupe Penelope (Weisz), works to great effect throughout. As Imogen notes, the lines between the truth of the film and the con within the diegesis begin to blur, and this is where the film is particularly affecting. Anticipation of certain twists and turns, as according to genre conventions, may convince us of being clever spectators, but Johnson constantly defies those expectations. Each expected narrative turn gets peeled back to reveal otherwise, like another layer in the onion. It’s easy to see that Johnson has a deft touch with plot and narrative.
I would have to agree that the third act is the weakest; the film’s climax lies in Bloom’s admission to Penelope, but it does begin to lose steam from there. Admittedly, this is a minor complaint in what was otherwise an extraordinarily fun film for me. Brody, Ruffalo, Weisz and Kikuchi are all fantastic and engaging as larger-than-life characters, their performances readily rising to the challenge of the energy required by a caper film. This energy and vivacity is captured, too, in the film’s visual style – courtesy of cinematographer Steve Yedlin, and editor Gabriel Wrye. Wondrous opening sequence aside, we’re also spoiled with sweeping pans, cheeky crash zooms and whip pans, and unusually-angled shots. The Brothers Bloom certainly has the panache to pull off its demanding script.