Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Brothers Bloom"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“As far as con man stories go, I think I’ve heard them all.
Of grifters, ropers, faro fixers, tales drawn long and tall.
But if one bears a bookmark in the confidence man’s tome,
twould be that of Penelope, and of the Brothers Bloom.”

-Narrator (Ricky Jay)

I won’t call Rian Johnson too clever (apparently he hated it in ’09), but writing the first six minutes of your film as a Little Rascals confidence game as rendered by Wes Anderson, in rhyming iambic heptameter, is definitely a conscious choice to show off your sense of style. But I expected nothing less from the director of Brick, which takes place at a modern American high school, but is a hard-boiled film noir detective story, complete with all the 1940s period dialogue, see? I don’t mind saying, Johnson is clever – and I’ve been rather pleased to see him try his hand at another genre in the intervening years – but his first two films certainly forced the audience to make an early choice about their willingness to suspend disbelief with respect to his out-of-this-world characters, who tell as much as they show, using words that nobody on this planet still uses, plucked from multiple decades of 20th-century fiction and slotted into the present day.

And the Brothers Bloom – Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrian Brody) – are confidence men posing as antique dealers who travel by fucking steamship to The Continent (even after the movie amusingly reveals that airplanes exist in this world). The two are definitely from a bygone era, and they wear a multitude of hats – and I mean that in every sense of the phrase. We see Stephen craft his first con when the pair are orphan brothers of 10 and 13, flitting from one foster family to another before inexorably getting kicked out for bad behavior. This is a pattern that would repeat for the rest of their lives, including with their criminal mentor, the villainous Russian mobster known only as Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell, in his final role), sporting an eyepatch from their last violent farewell. But – back to that first con. Even as a newly minted teenager, young Stephen (Max Records) is a firm believer that all the world’s a stage, and his brother Bloom (Zachary Gordon) is his star. He storyboards his first con – an elaborate scheme to get all of the town’s middle-class kids to muddy up their Sunday-best in order to collect kickbacks from the town dry cleaner – as cover to allow Bloom to talk to a girl he likes. Really, that’s it. He presents the con as an act of kindness, and would go on to say repeatedly that the perfect con is where, “each one involved gets just the thing they wanted”. This even includes the mark, who gets a thrill or an adventure or a whirlwind romance (or the chance to think they’ve murdered someone in a rage, then flee?) in exchange for a sum of stolen cash that, frankly, they can usually afford to lose.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

Stephen is the closest thing to a Mary Sue that I’ve ever seen in fiction. This is not a term I use lightly in 2019, and it has a fairly muddled meaning (my only prior use of it fell somewhere between tokenism and stunt-casting). The term has deservedly fallen out of favor in the past decade, mostly used in bad faith by misogynists who can’t fathom the likes of Rey or Arya Stark kicking well-earned ass with skills that whose provenance was thoroughly demonstrated on-screen. As I retire my use of the term here, let me be clear what I mean by it: Stephen is an authorial, self-insert, wish-fulfillment character. The idea that Stephen’s authorship of Bloom’s existence is so thorough as to prevent his brother from experiencing an authentic moment in his life is not only a diabolical fiction; it beggars belief. And it works, because these actors fully commit to this reality with a heaping spoonful of self-awareness. What Ruffalo is delivering…is Rian Johnson with godlike powers. This is not even the only self-insert screenwriter character I’ve seen (Charlie Kaufman and Martin McDonagh are both prior culprits), but at a certain point, you’ve just gotta call Dante what he is as he winks at the reader and descends into the Inferno.

Stephen is the in-universe author of this film, deciding on the fly how best to serve his characters, which include family like Bloom, marks, like the rich, quirky, shut-in, dilettante, epileptic photographer Penelope (Rachel Weisz), and friends like the mute explosives expert Bang-Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). These are caper characters. Bang-Bang, who is literally mute and appeared out of nowhere, is essentially a plot device, even if Kikuchi delivers yet another amusing (silent) performance. But these caperists know exactly what they are, even if Bloom is suddenly the only one bothered by it. Because Stephen writes Bloom’s life, his brother plays the role of the shill, or the honeypot, in the structure of a confidence game. He ropes in the marks, which almost invariably include a beautiful woman – and we have to accept Brody’s well-acted assurance that today, he’s 35 years old, he’s been living a false life for twenty-plus years, and he’s decided he can’t wake up next to another stranger that thinks they know him. So he’s out. Both a decade ago and now, I was on board for this. It’s exciting, isn’t it? Because it’s supposed to be. Johnson-as-Stephen wrote Bloom as the vulnerable antihero so that we’d internalize his laudable reluctance to perform one last job (which Stephen waits three whole months before inviting him back for), and while I’m not totally convinced that it was necessary to have a character explicitly point this out on-screen, it does require Brody to be the acting MVP of this film. Even if he has ample competition.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

Weisz had to sell Penelope’s bored, rich hobbyist ways by learning a multitude of skills, including playing a bunch of musical instruments, karate-chopping, backflipping, DJing, ping-ponging, juggling (I think the chainsaws were CGI), and riding a giraffe unicycle. But while that’s impressive, it’s not exactly acting. It’s an exhibition of parlor tricks, however impressive they may be after only a few weeks for the actor to train. But acting, Weisz’s primary hustle, is what happens on a train to Prague. Penelope has joined the brothers for a con to smuggle a stolen 8th century prayer book allegedly worth millions. As with all of her hobbies, Penelope is excited to try this one, and she’s leaning hard into the sleeper-car fantasy of it all. That’s to say, she schmoozes with Bloom, nurses her 9th mini-bottle of an unspecified liquor, before drunkenly (and graphically) describing him as “constipated…in [his] fucking soul”. She also admits that she knows she’s only pretending to be a smuggler. Then she ruminates on acting a bit and climbs to the end of the bed, telling Bloom that his problem is that he’s got to stop thinking so much and live his truth. Then a thunderstorm erupts outside, and she proceeds to fuck the train, after a fashion, before announcing (completely unnecessarily) that she’s horny. This really must be seen to be believed, because in a movie full of deliberately overwritten scenes, this is a movie character getting shitfaced and telling her castmate that she knows all of this may be fiction, but they’re on a train for a leisurely crime, and the best thing he can do is enjoy the ride. And then she writhes orgasmically to cement the point. For a moment, she’s a creature of pure id who’s shamelessly breaking the fourth wall, and rather than feeling manic or pixie or like any sort of a dream girl about it, the moment feels completely genuine. Ugly and sloppy and ridiculous, but real. And it scares the shit out of Bloom, who immediately bids her goodnight and flees the car. Penelope was right about him. Soul full of grumpy poop, that one.

I suppose this is where I’m meant to ruminate on how The Brothers Bloom has changed for me over the past decade, but if I’m being honest, despite paying thirty bucks for a Canadian import Blu-ray so I could see the film a bit earlier (since it never came to Seattle for a theatrical release), this is only the second time I can recall watching it. But it delighted me today, as it did a decade ago. Its production design is stellar, with both costuming and locales (for which the movie really flitted around Eastern Europe) giving the movie a real jet-setting (train-setting?) international flair without looking like it cost all that much to make. Nathan Johnson‘s score, with his group The Cinematic Underground, is a sheer delight – at times sweet and sentimental, at times an epic, jazzy romp on an outdoor bar stage, and features creativity and breadth of style and instruments that are rarely seen. This was only Johnson’s second film score (his first being Brick), and I’m pleased to see he’s continued making music in the intervening years, even if that includes only a handful of film scores.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

But as I sat on my couch sipping merlot and playing out the part of the film wonk revisiting a movie for the hell of it, I know in my heart this movie is as much of a narrative mess as lesser fare that I’ve dismissed over the years, like Matchstick Men or Bandits or…yes, I’ll admit it, The Sting. It’s perhaps a lesser grift than the 2003 James Foley film, Confidence, the best of the genre that I can recall, but that film seemed far more concerned with its grifting technique than in crafting characters I should care too much about. It also featured Weisz in a dubious and lightly misogynistic role that was frankly beneath her, so it’s hard not to see Bloom as an improvement for her participation in the genre. As a 30-something revisiting the film now, I find I can relate much more to Bloom’s struggle to find his identity and be comfortable in his own skin. By this point in life, you’re meant be able to live with who you are and your place in the world – and if you can’t, that’s a serious problem for both your life and mental health. Seeing this a decade ago, I just kinda rolled with the film’s premise. Seeing it now, I empathized a great deal with Bloom’s struggle, even if I was making an even more conscious choice than before to suspend my disbelief about his lifestyle. Penelope presents another lens through which to view this struggle, because she’s a creature of privilege who can afford to flit from one identity to another at will, never feeling a sunk cost of money or time (the latter being the most precious and limited resource). The film seems content to mock her a bit for this, twice featuring a spiral notebook in which she’s scribbling “Penelope the Smuggler” and “Penelope the Con Artist” like a 12-year-old. But is Penelope really the immature one? What this character says over and over again is that she writes her own story – that she tells it to herself over and over again until it becomes true. But she prefaces this by saying that the trick to not feeling cheated is to learn how to cheat. I found this provocative because I now believe it’s easy to feel cheated as you learn more and more how the world works, even as there’s almost certainly someone else would look at your life and wonder what you have to complain about. And perhaps that’s why we root for con artists and antiheroes. Anyone who breaks the rules to peel off a fragment of wealth from the handful of robber barons who hoard most of it…is worth rooting for. Even if they tend to end up dead or in prison in real life. But I knew all of this already – or at least “knew it” in the sense of banal cynicism. The emotional core of this film is still fundamentally about becoming comfortable with your identity and your place in the world, and however my worldview may have changed in the intervening years, there’s a lot I can connect with here.

I also recognize that it’s difficult to get the tone just right in the con game. The saving grace of The Brothers Bloom is its commitment to maintaining about a 3:1 ratio of romantic whimsy to self-seriousness at all times – even to the point of letting Penelope walk out of a Czech police station with the stolen prayer book in hand, with the script literally scoffing on-screen at the idea of ever explaining how she did it. My guess is that a substantial bribe was involved. The film’s caprice runs a very real risk of making me dismiss it as a silly trifle, but that’s not how I felt while watching it, and more or less how I feel watching James Bond, so really, who cares? I’m happy to let the movie be what it is, which is a flight of fancy from a bygone era, filled with fourth-wall breaking characters who literally know better than to be doing all of this. And capers do happen in real life. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and a billionaire Coke heir were just busted with a plane full of Business Weed in St. Kitts this past week! Capers are just…marginally more likely if you don’t have work in the morning. Or if you can commit to your new life of crime by blowing up your existing one.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Vincenzo Natali’s “Splice” – What hath man wrought?

“Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms; creating or implanting embryos for experiments; creating human-animal hybrids; and buying, selling or patenting human embryos.”

-George W. Bush

We all heard it, or at least heard about it – the moment when the President of the United States, perhaps after watching Mansquito on the Sci-Fi Channel, stood before Congress for a Constitutionally-mandated State of the Union and demanded that they ban the creation of human-animal hybrids. We laughed, or at least chuckled a bit. Most of us knew about Dolly, the cloned sheep. A few of us might’ve seen the mouse with a mock human ear on its back. But human-animal hybrids? Did the President honestly expect us to believe that there’s a lab somewhere diligently toiling to build its very own centaur?

From Cube director Vincenzo Natali comes Splice, a provocative and disturbing drama that explores that very possibility. The film stars Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley as Clive and Elsa, a pair of rockstar geneticists working to synthesize a miraculous, disease-fighting protein by splicing together DNA from a variety of different animals. The lab’s aesthetic is very pop-sci… Think “CSI” with snazzier wardrobe – I daresay Adrian Brody sports a different novelty geek tee in every scene. The two scientists are also romantically involved, which makes their almost giddy pursuit of new life that much more poignant. Their first several creations are failures, pickling grotesquely in jars next to celebratory champagne bottles with the name of each prospective bioengineered couple – “Adam and Eve”, “Sid and Nancy”, and the latest – the still-living “Fred and Ginger”. Appropriately, these two look like a pair of huge, malformed guinea pigs. With no faces and third-degree burns. They’re monstrous to behold, and serve quite effectively to remind the viewer that it took millions of years of evolution to make us look as sexy as we do now, and a bit of random DNA splicing is likely to end up lacking in the aesthetic department.

'How do you know what she'll do?'
'I just know, okay?!'

With this in mind, it makes sense that Clive and Elsa would go behind the backs of their bosses to incorporate human DNA into the mix, but it’s still a bit of a cinematic conceit that the resulting creature looks much less horrifying than Fred and Ginger. Dren, as she comes to be called [Nerd spelled backwards], looks more or less human from the torso up, but sports double-jointed legs, feet that are equal parts monkey and kangaroo, and a rather ominous looking tail (Didn’t Chekhov say something about a huge, venomous spike in the first act?).

The creature design and visual effects are just superb. Much like the creatures of Will Wright’s “Spore”, Dren was is clearly designed to be viewed in stages; to this end, we have cinematic conceit #2… Her aging is rapidly accelerated. After a series of CG quasi-fetuses, Dren is played by a human child with various practical and CG tweaks. As an adult, she is played to great effect by French actress/model Delphine Chanéac. For a performance in which she never utters human speech, Chanéac makes Dren into at least a somewhat legitimate “character”. But she’s also bald, she never blinks, her head darts around like a bird, and she moves with an animalistic fluidity and speed. Like the residents of the uncanny valley, Dren seems irrevocably human, and yet even when her animal parts aren’t visible, she just seems…wrong.

Consequently, Elsa’s interaction with Dren is pretty jarring at first. She seems to forms a maternal bond almost immediately, to Clive’s chagrin. But while her relationship with Dren developed mostly organically, Elsa didn’t completely work for me as a character… She starts off as the moral “Eve” of the situation, acting as the impetus behind the creation of the beast and then dragging Clive along for the ride, but as the film goes on, her history and motivations get a bit muddled (particularly by the rushed introduction of the character’s less than healthy upbringing). In spite of these minor difficulties, Polley gives a fantastic performance, the chemistry between her and Brody is undeniable. They are completely believable together as both a romantic couple and quasi-parents (although this may be the most striking example yet of why a couple shouldn’t work together!).

At first, Elsa and Clive seem almost high on life (which seems plausible enough for cutting edge geneticists), but their boldness and arrogance is thoroughly smacked down as the film goes on. We are run through a myriad of moral and ethical questions regarding the creation and upbringing of a human-animal hybrid. There were the ones I expected – Do you treat it like a human or an animal? Like a pet or a research subject? – and a few others I frankly never would’ve imagined*. There was one question that I would have liked to see more of – what do you teach a creature with near-human intelligence? We see a bit of this when Dren is a child, but due to her rapid aging and character changes, this question is too hastily abandoned. Nonetheless, Splice is quite impressive as a bioethical thought experiment, perhaps joining the ranks alongside (but not quite eclipsing) Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. And like that film, it tackles material that will probably no longer be science fiction in a decade or two.

'None of her animal components have predatory characteristics.'
'There is the human element...'

Splice also reminded me of Jurassic Park, reiterating that film’s ethos of “life will find a way”. The only problem with the film’s portrayal is that in the case of a designer organism, it’s not entirely clear – either to us or the organism itself – what exactly it’s finding a way to do. It doesn’t fit in with the natural order, and its behavior (and relationship with other creatures) is governed largely by overlapping and often contradictory tidbits of chemical instinct. I may be giving Splice too much credit, but this naturalistic chaos may well be the point the film is trying to make. And like Jurassic Park before it, the characters certainly pay a believable price for their hubris.

In its marketing, Splice looks more or less like a typical monster flick, although only about 10% of it is what I would really call creature-horror. Nonetheless, Vincenzo Natali’s direction throughout the film ably plays on monster movie conventions to add additional stakes (and a few brilliant moments of dark comedy) to what might otherwise be an overwrought morality play. Splice may well be one of my favorite films of this year, but it is also one of the most visceral and shocking things I’ve ever seen, and it’s definitely not for everyone. But Natali has once again proven himself a thoughtful and provocative sci-fi writer/director. Splice may not explore every possibility of its audacious premise, but it is still a brilliant and haunting achievement.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

*Ah, the fevered dream of every sci-fi explorer from James Kirk to Jason Mewes. Was I surprised? Certainly. Disturbed? Not really**.
**(the first time, at least)