This year, Rian Johnson was announced as the director of STAR WARS EPISODE VIII, which is a truly enticing prospect. He’s a writer-director I’ve only come into contact with over the past couple of years, first through the sharp time travel thriller LOOPER, then I saw his masterful highschool noir, BRICK. His second feature film THE BROTHERS BLOOM is just as unique, twisted and entertaining, if not quite as consistent, as Johnson’s two other work, and though it’s essentially a farcical con-man movie, it’s not really about what happens in the story, but the act of storytelling itself.
The film follows a lifelong partnership between siblings Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and his younger brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) who have been executing ambitious cons for profit since they were children. Stephen’s meticulous planning and Bloom’s ability to lie and create characters have served the duo well in their decades-long crime spree, but when Bloom falls for their latest mark, Penelope (Rachel Weisz), an eccentric heiress, what is supposed to be their final con proves to be far from simple.
The film’s setting is timeless, the mix of fashions, technology and language appearing to be belong to all an no particular period. This lends a certain level of fantasy to everything Stephen tells us, so we never really know what, if anything, we see actually happened. Stephen keeps insisting throughout that everything that occurs, whether good or bad, is all part of his plan (and at several points he produces his plan on paper to prove as such), but as Bloom and Penelope go ever more off-script, we are asked to wonder just how much has been planned, and how far ahead Stephen is really looking. Wisely, Johnson doesn’t ever provide us with a definitive answer, so we can read Stephen and his level of scheming to whatever extent we like. Is just lucky, or is he a bona fide genius?
Brody and Ruffalo convince as siblings whose relationship may go through frequent rough patches (usually when Bloom is duped into doing something particularly immoral by Stephen, and is haunted by his conscience), but their brotherly bond remains unbreakable – you don’t have to like your family, they say, but you have to love them. Brody makes Bloom appealingly earnest and morally conflicted, and Ruffalo brings a shed-load of charm to Stephen, and really sells it that he is always plotting, always at least two steps ahead. Bloom seems to be “done” with the life of crime every other scene, but Stephen always manages to tempt him back, usually with the help of his formidable, almost supernaturally resourceful silent bodyguard/fixer Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). While Brody and Ruffalo both turn in fine performances, the film belongs to the ladies, with the mesmirising Kikuchi communicating a staggering amount with a slight change in expression or physical tic (their plan going a little wrong does at one point force her, hilariously, to say something), and Weisz, who creates a captivatingly daffy manic depressive “hobby collector” in Penelope.
I wasn’t so enraptured with Robbie Coltraine playing “The Curator” who may, or may not be Belgian (judging by his accent, probably not), nor by Maximilian Schell’s “Diamond Dog”, the Blooms’ former boss who looks and sounds like a villain from a pulp comic series you’ve never heard of. Both of these characters come from the portion of the film that doesn’t really work, when Johnson tries to bring in a credible threat to proceedings, elements of a serious crime film, we just can’t take it seriously because everything else we see is so throwaway and weird.
It’s kind of the point of the film that you can barely keep up with what is going on – we see events through Bloom’s eyes, and generally remain bewildered by Stephen’s “bigger picture”. That might be seen as a weakness by some, viewers who like their stories to be clearly defined and unambiguous, but I like how open and nebulous Johnson has left the plot and the way it is communicated (or not) to us. As I said, it’s not a story as much as a demonstration of storytelling and the embellishments that can be applied to narration, so it almost doesn’t matter that it’s a little incoherent.
A few of the jokes don’t quite land, and even in a film where big story event signposts are few and far between, some scenes feel unnecessary and don’t really go anywhere. A drastic final act change in tone seems particularly out of place, taking the film into a different genre entirely, but Johnson and his cast thankfully get things back on track again for an affecting final few minutes.
I can’t claim that everyone will like The Brothers Bloom, in fact, if you’re against an open style of storytelling that offers very few answers at the end, you’ll probably outright hate it. But not me, I’m might not be quite as captivated with Johnson’s second feature as his first, third, or his BREAKING BAD episodes, but I’m certainly glad I’ve seen it, a unique and odd experience that has allowed me to think a different way about telling (or not telling) a tale on film, and about the power the narrator wields. SSP