The Brothers Bloom: Conmen as Existentialist Heroes?

The Brothers Bloom is a new twist, or series of twists on a familiar movie theme: con artists whose schemes are so elaborate that we are never sure until the very end (if then) who is conning whom and what the real story is. Because this kind of story has been done so many times, as in the films of David Mamet, I expected to be less than impressed with it. Yet I found it surprisingly entertaining and original.

Director Rian Johnson, who also directed Brick (the film noir set in a contemporary high school) creates a surreal world in The Brothers Bloom, one that has many elements of atmospheric thrillers from bygone days while apparently taking place in the present. The brothers, the younger and naive Bloom (that’s his first name, played by Adrien Brody) and the more sophisticated and conniving Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) are shown growing up as orphans kicked from one foster home to another in a comical montage sequence. As children, they appear to be refugees from a Dickens novel, dressed in old fashioned dark suits and hats.

Even as adults, they inhabit a strangely noirish world of atmospheric trains and steamer ships while the world around them seems ordinary and contemporary. Bloom wants to escape the “scripted” life of the con man, though Stephen convinces him to take on the proverbial one last job. The mark is the beautiful rich recluse Penelope (Rachel Weisz), who lives in an absurdly anachronistic mansion in, of all places, New Jersey. Predictably, Bloom and Penelope fall in love, but whether this will prevail over the brothers’ lifelong habit of deception we don’t discover till the end. Maximilian Schell, a long time veteran of traditional mysteries, adds to the ambiance as a sinister Russian mobster with an eye patch.

So what makes The Brothers Bloom stand out among the countless other entries in this genre? Mainly in its audacity at blatantly calling attention to its own machinations. This itself has become a popular postmodern gimmick in many contemporary films, and is something that risks annoying or completing alienating the audience. After all, the conventional notion of a story is that we, the reader or viewer, is supposed to get absorbed by the narrative, forgetting that it’s something made up. The Brothers Bloom does not go so far as to identify itself as a movie; rather, it suggests that life itself, especially the lives of grifters, is inevitably scripted.

By making Stephen, who openly calls himself a scriptwriter, unapologetic about his nature makes the whole twistiness of the plot more palatable than the typical movie of this kind. At least that’s the effect it had on this reviewer. I am, in general,
over-saturated on twists and clever endings, where the actual outcome seems arbitrary and whole intent is simply to fool the audience, not a very difficult endeavor when you are the author or director.

The Brothers Bloom turns the very concept of twists into an existentialist issue, and thereby puts a new and fresh spin on it. While its questionable if the brothers in this movie can legitimately be considered existentialist heroes, they do provoke some interesting thoughts about the nature of things like life, love and truth, and that’s more than you get from most movies.

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