As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a con man. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true. But studying the world of deception always has been a passion of mine. A love for magic/sleight of hand developed at an early age and that led to a life of amateur sleights and a pocketful of fancy card-cutting techniques. I never really practiced much beyond that, but I’ve never stopped reading about con men and card sharps and every time a “con movie” is released, I jump on it. The classic con movies such as The Sting, Nine Queens, and House of Games traditionally keep the audience guessing until the very end who is actually duping who. The Brothers Bloom, the sophomore film by young director Rian Johnson (Brick – a perfectly executed Hammett-style noir set in a California high school), delivers on every tried aspect of a con movie and also works on so many others levels: romance, comedy, etc. It’s also the first display of what Johnson can do with an actual budget. If I was a high-profile critic I might be crucified for stating this, but Bloom may just be the greatest con movie of all time.
Orphan brothers Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) have been on the grift since their childhood and mastermind Stephen is obsessed with pulling off the “perfect con” – one in which everyone, even the mark, gets what they want. Yes, Brody’s name in the film is simply “Bloom,” he has no first name – a touch I really love simply because one of the thematic aspects of the film is Brody’s search for himself: who are you if your entire life you’ve been pretending to be someone else? If everyone you’ve ever had a relationship with never knew who you really are? Brody nails the agony behind these questions. While Bloom tires of the grift, Stephen plans their final con; their thesis-con, if you will. He chooses for their final mark Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a New Jersey oil-heiress who is both painfully naive and endlessly endearing. Interpersonal relationships are a kind of voodoo in the world of cons. In linguist David Maurer‘s 1940 quintessential study of confidence men, The Big Con, he examines the personal life of con men in a chapter titled “Birds of a Feather.” Maurer states that:
“The fact that there are few marriages among con folk and even fewer divorces need not imply that there is no code governing relations between the sexes.”
It’s stated in the movie that the code of the Blooms is “no women.” Yet, Stephen insists on fleecing Penelope. His decision to mark her is the first in a long line of deceptions that smoothly unravel until the curtain closes. Bloom falls for Penelope off the bat and hearkening back to what I said earlier, it’s this relationship and the performances that make the Brothers Bloom possibly the best con movie of all time.
I haven’t seen all of his work, but I’ve ever seen a poor performance by Mark Ruffalo. This is, however, one of the first movies I’ve seen where he plays one of the leads, and he’s just straight up enjoyable to watch as the cocky, self-assured Stephen. Rinko Kikuchi plays the Blooms’ assistant and demolition expert, Bang Bang, and with almost no dialogue, she effortlessly manages to steal pretty much every scene she’s in. Brody is on point as always and Weisz is just sort of “enh” as the reclusive, eccentric heiress, but that might just be the cause of edits. She shifts from recluse to in-your-face goofball rather quickly; one of my only problems with the movie.
I could seriously go on for pages about this movie and it would be hard for me to continue without dropping some spoilers, so quickly, it’s a great time and I strongly believe it will go down as one of the essential con movies of all time. Rian Johnson appreciates the nuances of genre and pulls off everything so well that it’s easy to forgive the film’s few errata. Thematically and visually the movie is very generous and demands repeated viewings. The score was composed by Rian’s brother Nathan (who also scored Brick) and is incredible in its own way. Bonus: Ricky Jay is the fucking narrator! What an appropriate nod to the great real-life card sharps and students of the underworld.
To wet your whistle, check out the first seven minutes of the film here.