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This article contains spoilers for The Brothers Bloom.
The Brothers Bloom is the kind of sophomore feature that arrives like a slap in the face, a blatant demonstration of the kind of talent and range writer-director Rian Johnson can consistently bring to his projects. Whereas Brick was a passion project birthed from pure grit and determination, The Brothers Bloom is a more polished studio comedy. But Johnson does not compromise invention for the sake of having more expensive tools at his disposal. And remarkably enough, The Brothers Bloom is a multitiered narrative, layering metaphor on the process of storytelling into the intricate weave of con artist duplicity in a manner that would imply a longer career of filmmaking to retroactively deconstruct. But Rian Johnson apparently just understands the mechanics of storytelling that well, and he is such a master storyteller that he can slip that subtext into his work effortlessly.
The titular brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and, uh, Bloom (Adrien Brody), become con artists at a young age, with Stephen acting as the orchestrator of cons that give their targets the illusion of their desires in exchange for unwitting monetary betrayal, while Bloom acts as the primary engine of Stephen’s plans, taking on supporting roles to the protagonistic fantasies of their targets. In storytelling terms, Stephen is filling the role of the author, directing the path of the con in a manner that parallels Johnson’s role as writer and director almost to the point where Stephen is an explicit author surrogate. Bloom, meanwhile, is a persistent character in his brother’s stories, but as the cons have become more intricate and calculated, Bloom starts to question whether he even has an identity outside of his brother’s influence. He craves “an unwritten life,” where he gets to be a person independent of the plots laid out for him to enact.
So when Stephen promises one last job conning the rich heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz) through an elaborate globetrotting escapade for a fictional hidden treasure, Bloom is reluctant and skeptical that this final adventure will be enough to satisfy his brother. But he goes along with seducing Penelope, who is an awkward and lonely collector of hobbies, which makes her life full of arbitrary artistic skills and talents but devoid of a narrative to provide them use or meaning. As Penelope invites herself along on the brothers’ adventure, you get to see the con crafted as a multistep process of developing a story, specifically a cinematic one.
For instance, the fictional names of the brothers’ accomplices are references to beer and Herman Melville that Penelope picks up on as an educated and learned observer, which are waved off as coincidences in the moment but are clear indulgences to Stephen’s authorial egotism. The duo’s “fifth Beatle” Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) is the silent demolitions expert of the group, the functional equivalent of a special effects artist, instrumental to the plot without being the face or voice of it. The world of The Brothers Bloom is rife with absurd tangents like a flask-drinking camel, Stephen and Bang Bang's scorecard judgments of Bloom’s performance upon crashing a bike into Penelope’s unsuspecting car, and mysterious figures disappearing into obviously darkened bits of set dressing, and these blatant breaks from the ostensible reality of the film place further emphasis on the constructed nature of Stephen’s con and the film Johnson has created for that con to live in.
The brothers’ backstory eventually comes back to haunt them in the form of their former mentor and current antagonist Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell), and with that past comes the ultimate question of what is real within the constructs of Stephen’s fiction. As a mere character in Stephen’s story, Bloom is never privy to the whole picture brewing in Stephen’s head, so when Bloom confesses the con to Penelope, resulting in a confrontation that leaves Stephen apparently dead, the fact that Stephen planned for such an eventuality and acted out his demise is the ultimate betrayal of Bloom’s self-perceived agency. Bloom’s lowest point arrives at the realization that he’s just another actor in his brother’s play, even when he believes that he’s falling in love with their mark in explicit rebellion of their stated goals.
This is why the inevitable third-act reunion of the brothers, Penelope, and Bang Bang three months later raises so many questions in Bloom’s mind about what Stephen’s motives truly are with regard to pulling an even greater con on Penelope. Literary allusions, foreshadowed payoffs, unlikely coincidences, and the return of Diamond Dog into the picture make for such a clean resolution to Stephen’s original drama that, when Stephen is kidnapped and held for ransom for exactly the amount they had planned to take from Penelope, Bloom can’t help but question how much danger his brother really is in. This remains true even when confronted with Stephen bloody and tied up at the ransom exchange, with Diamond Dog on the other end of a phone line taunting Bloom with the reality of the situation. But once Bloom and Stephen fight off Diamond Dog’s henchmen, Stephen shakes off his apparently fatal gunshot wound as a long gag, even though Penelope is entirely absent for the performance. It’s only after Bloom leaves Stephen alone, sitting in the spotlight on a stage, that we come to realize that Stephen truly has been shot, and we witness a literal death of the author as Stephen lets go of his brother, his most cherished character, who rides into the sunset with Penelope.
An early scene detailing one of Penelope’s many hobbies explores the process of making a pinhole camera, exposing film through a small hole in a darkened space like a watermelon. The result is not a reproduction of an image, but an interpretation, or “storytelling” as Penelope puts it. This is the encapsulation of how The Brothers Bloom views and deconstructs the process of storytelling through filmmaking. Bloom may be a character in Stephen’s and Rian Johnson’s story, but he lives on outside of that story, beyond the machinations of plot and off towards a happy ending with a woman he loves into the imaginations of the audience. But he would never have grown to that point without being a character in the story, nor would the tragedy of losing his storyteller be so potent if simply allowed the unwritten life he thought he wanted. Penelope tells Bloom that Stephen once said there is no such thing as an unwritten life, only a life written poorly. If we take Bloom’s fictional life to be the story we’ve been given, it’s hard to deny that his was not a life written poorly.