Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Forty-Three

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#43 — The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2009)
Rian Johnson’s second feature film virtually reverberates with a love of storytelling. The main plot is driven by an elaborate con that unfolds across several nations, so there is naturally an abundance of intricate details all laid out with loving care. More than that, though, The Brothers Bloom brims over with affection for the underlying parts of storytelling: allusion, imagery, metaphor, motifs and characterization. Plot may be the meat of a film, but these other things provide the flavor.

It’s a philosophy that Johnson instills into Stephen, the older of the Bloom brothers, played with rumpled panache by Mark Ruffalo. Stephen is the mastermind behind the brothers’ cons. He doesn’t just plan them, though. He writes them, as his brother puts it, “like Russian novels.” In Johnson’s fanciful, romantic, endlessly inventive depiction of these inveterate fraudsters, the payoff is as much about a satisfying meaning as it is a hefty payday. Similar movies can get bogged down in the mechanics of their plans. The Brothers Bloom, by its very conceit, invites the audience to consider the proceedings in very different ways, to examine everything that goes into them. The dominoes are set up to fall, of course, but its a mistake to assume the design, look, feel of the dominoes themselves is immaterial. If anything, that’s where the real truth lies.

This is all set up marvelously in a prologue at the beginning. We see the brothers as youngsters shuttled between multiple foster families. They craft and execute their first con, duping neighborhood kids out of a few bucks with the promise of a magical treasure inside a cave. It seems like little more than a cute way to introduce the duo and establish their duplicitous ways. In actuality, it succinctly, entertainingly establishes everything their relationship is about, particularly Stephen’s protectiveness towards his younger brother, and his desire to give him a life outside of the damaged one they’re stuck with. More than anything else, Stephen wants to shove his sibling into the world, a happy relationship with a pretty girl, a life free from the hardscrabble scheming that is, for the two of them, a necessary survival tactic.

That younger brother is known only as Bloom, maybe because he represents both members of this tandem with his talent for the con and his simultaneous distaste for the aftereffects, maybe because the word itself nicely represents his possibility, his freshness, his potential to be open to the world in a way his brother never could be. He’s played by Adrien Brody, who gives him a necessary hangdog quality, but also a sense of instinctual curiosity that suggests his route out, his path to the better place that is his brother’s ultimate hope. He’s a co-conspirator in the cons, but also, in a way, one of the marks. Given the way the cons are constructed, Stephen can manipulate things to give Bloom a moony romance, make a young woman fall in love with his dark brooding. Early on in the film, Bloom makes it clear that he’s on to this facet of Stephen’s efforts. The question is: how much of the major con run later in the film is really just a grand plan to manipulate Bloom towards his proper escape? It’s a question that Johnson never definitively answers. There are hints and slyly dropped notions, but Johnson offers no final clarity on that front, no flashbacks that fill in the gaps. The story is what the story is, and there’s no reason to explain where the mystery reappearing ace of hearts came from.

Johnson creates a rich world of characters and recruits splendid actors to embody them. Maximilian Schell is gleefully menacing as the brothers’ mentor-turned-enemy, swaying through a few scenes with the glint of wild Russian hippie pirate. Robbie Coltrane demonstrates his gift for shrewd comedy as a Belgian conman and Rinko Kikuchi brings flinty inspiration to the largely pantomime role of the brothers’ explosive-inclined girl Friday. Best of all is Rachel Weisz, shimmering with energy and offbeat discovery as the isolated, socially maladjusted heiress who is the primary target of this last great con. Lured out of her mansion by the promise of adventure, she confronts the complexities of life with a fearlessness born of previously enduring smothering protection. She tries out an uncertain existence like she’s sounding out a new language, and Weisz captures her sense of liberation with an eager, easy charm. For her, starting over is a good start. It’s something she has in common with Bloom. Symmetry, after all, is another simple, endearing facet of good storytelling, just one of many that The Brothers Bloom beautifully masters.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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