Posted on Friday, May 15th, 2009 by David Chen
Every now and then, a director comes along whose debut film is so inventive and skillful that it heralds the arrival of a bold new creative voice. For director Rian Johnson, that film was Brick, a Dashiell Hammett mystery set in a California high school. With his stylish filmmaking (on a shoestring budget, no less) and his unique, enthralling dialogue, Johnson evinced a formidable degree of promise. It’s been four years since Brick won a Sundance Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision, and I’ve been extremely eager to see what Johnson would come up with for his follow-up. Does his new film, The Brothers Bloom, show that he’s more than just a one-hit wonder?
In The Brothers Bloom, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are two brothers who, since their teens, have been conning people for money. Older brother Stephen is the mastermind of their plots, which are monstrously elaborate, blurring the line between fiction and reality. Bloom is skilled at playing his part in each con but, over the years, has come to rely emotionally on the personas invented by Stephen in order to thrive. After years of playing countless roles in order to swindle people out of their money, Bloom tells his brother that he’s finally quitting and fleeing for distant shores. Stephen tracks Bloom down and convinces him to return for one final job: to con a reclusive heiress (Rachel Weisz). But when Bloom begins falling in love with the “mark,” it threatens to destroy their entire plan.
What I love about The Brothers Bloom is that it operates on numerous levels, but doesn’t force any of them upon the viewer. If you choose, you can enjoy Bloom as simply a con film, with a script that will keep you guessing until the very end as to who is duping who. But the film is also a tender romance, as well as a story of one man’s quest to find his true self in a life that’s been filled with lies. Towards the beginning of the film, Bloom comments that his brother “writes cons like Russian poets write novels, with thematic arcs and embedded symbolism.” It’s not too much of a stretch to say that that’s how Rian Johnson writes his films. The film’s script is filled with fleeting details and hidden meanings, many of which take on new importance upon a second viewing of the film (which I’d strongly recommend for anyone, especially if you liked it the first time around).
In trying to get across all of these ideas, Bloom is certainly ambitious, but Johnson takes you through the story with so much style, humor, and verve that it’s impossible not to be drawn into the ride. With a budget several times that of Brick, Johnson has expanded his visual scope considerably, delivering a cinematic confection that combines the mood and playfulness of a Wes Anderson with the technical proficiency of a P.T. Anderson. Virtually every frame of every shot in this film is packed with detail, the camera occasionally panning and swooping in with so much dynamism that it almost becomes a character of its own.
At this point, I’ve seen Bloom several times, and each time, I notice something new: an extra performing some complex task in the background; a line of dialogue that illuminates some motivation I hadn’t thought of; or a brief but powerful look during an intimate moment between Bloom and Stephen. Ebert once referred to this type of filmmaking as “generous” and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree; there are layers to Bloom, and Rian Johnson rewards those who try to dig deeper than what’s on the surface, both visually and thematically.
Yet with all of its filmmaking tricks, Johnson never loses sight of his characters. Ruffalo and Weisz are great in their respective roles, but it’s Brody who shines as the tortured soul looking for redemption. When you spend your entire life deceiving people, what truths do you have left for yourself? Brody captures the torment behind this question, and his character arc is ultimately what makes this film so memorable. I’m also obliged to mention Rinko Kikuchi’s knockout performance as the brothers’ sidekick, Bang Bang. With almost no dialogue whatsoever, Kikuchi virtually steals the movie right out from under Ruffalo and Brody, and continues to be a great talent to watch.
It’s difficult for me to talk more about why I loved this movie so much without revealing more of the plot’s details. I won’t do that just yet, since there’s so much magic to be derived from this film when discovering it for the first time. For now, just know that I was blown away and I have little doubt that by the end of 2009, The Brothers Bloom will be one of my favorite films of the year. To be sure, I don’t think Bloom is a perfect film: Rachel Weisz’s transformation from painfully-awkward recluse to gregarious love interest transpired a bit too quickly for me, and the film tries to do so much thematically that some of its meaning is lost in its break-neck pace. But it does so much right that it’s incredibly easy to forgive its few missteps. With The Brothers Bloom, Johnson has unequivocally shown that he has the capacity to transcend the complex moodiness of Brick and deliver a full-blown crowd-pleaser. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
The Brothers Bloom is out in theaters today in New York and LA. It will roll out to dozens more cities in the weeks to come. David Chen can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail(DOT)com. You can also follow him on Twitter.