By Sean Patrick Leydon
The Brothers Bloom may not sound familiar to you. That’s okay. Nobody I’ve investigated has admitted to seeing it either. The fact is: It is the second feature film written and directed by Rian Johnson, the same guy who did Brick and Looper. He was also recently announced as the writer-director for Star Wars Episodes VIII and IX.
Johnson is a playful artist, unafraid to set a drugged-out film noir in a high school and almost singularly capable of making time travel cool again via mafia hitmen. He mixes genres in ways mere mortals could never conceive, then uses those familiar tropes to flesh out the layers of meaning that create interesting, multi-faceted characters.
All of these aspects of Johnson’s work are brought to life in The Brothers Bloom, a highly stylized film that tells the story of the brothers Bloom (Adrian Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), con men since childhood. The narrator tells you directly: “If one [story] bears a bookmark in the confidence man’s tome, it would be that of Penelope and the Brothers Bloom.”
There is an openness to the tall tales within the film, a constant awareness of the nigh impossibility of the acts, which lends a childlike sweetness to the story. Many scenes are cut using sketches from Stephen’s storyboard for the job. It's like reading a picture book about fabled honorable thieves written for the coolest kid ever. Because of this, admittedly, some scenes are slightly telegraphed, but like pointing out the flaws in our favorite childhood tales, over-examining the simple noir plot points distracts from the fun to be had by suspending your disbelief and giving yourself over to Johnson’s story.
When you accept what you are watching and let yourself be taken along for the ride, you get to enjoy watching clever people use their minds to hack the planet. Stephen and Bloom are masters of the human psyche, using clothes, settings, accents, and fear but mostly their words to get what they want.
They are our protagonists, and we love them. We don’t mind that they spin wonderful lies to rob their marks blind. As my mother would say, this is not the type of movie the nuns would let you watch. Stephen argues that ignorance is bliss for their marks, and there is a darkness in his rationalization, and in that darkness, we realize that The Brothers Bloom is something more than just a childish fable.
This darkness is not singular within Johnson’s work. Brick is full of murder, paranoia, depression, lust, and greed, while Looper doubles down on the greed and adds hate, suicide, and loneliness. There is a recurring theme of characters involved is shady goings on yet still trying to make things right. Johnson tells stories about criminals and heroes – often indistinguishable – who work at cross purposes to the world around them. He takes us to places defined by the grayness of their morality and filled with people struggling to define what honor means for them.
I watched Johnson’s first film, Brick, a million times as a teen and the (original) Star Wars trilogy about as much in my childhood. The marriage of Star Wars and Johnson represents a freakish collision of the varied tastes I’ve spent my life developing. I’m wary of one of my favorite directors being given so much power but extremely excited to see what he does with it.
Think about Han Solo. He rules. Everyone watching Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time knew Han Solo ruled when he appeared on screen. Here was a badass smuggler with a laser pistol on his hip and a yeti for a companion, and he reluctantly accepts a noble quest because, what the hell, there’s money in it. He is a perfect Johnson-type hero: morally ambiguous but with deeply hidden notions of what’s right and what’s wrong.
Most of the characters in the Star Wars canon take a while to understand. Growing pains abound. Not so for Han Solo. He’s seen the whole universe, and he’s guarded because he knows it can crush anything with its indiscriminate wrath. I predict Johnson’s Star Wars entries will be full of mysterious, Solo-esque characters, eking out meager existences on the margins of their worlds and hiding the ghosts and demons within them from their friends and enemies alike.
These secret dark places in the minds of the characters Johnson creates are among the many reasons I’m excited for Star Wars Episodes VIII and IX. Add to that the fact that Johnson filmed Brick with donations from his family and friends and shot it at a high school while classes were in session. That film blew my brain apart, and I know I’m not the only one. Just imagine what he could do with the financial weight of Disney behind him – and hopefully the creative latitude to see his vision through to the big screen.
Johnson has been a director to watch right from the beginning of his career. While not as widely available as they should be, his films are out there waiting to be discovered. I watched The Brothers Bloom on DVD because, of course, I own it because Rian Johnson is my favorite. You, however, can and should watch this on whatever streamy tablet/computer/phone you like because it is currently screening somewhere in the vast cosmos of Netflix Instantwatch. You should do that. Go watch this children’s book of a film noir, then dream about lightsabers after.
Sean Patrick Leydon is a photographer, artist, and contributor to Last Cinema Standing. You can check out more of his work at nonotthought.blogspot.com.