Even though I greatly enjoyed Looper, Brick and, yes, The Last Jedi, it took me until last weekend to check out Rian Johnson’s sophomore film, The Brothers Bloom. It’s a strange film, strongly recalling the arch constructions of Wes Anderson while still breathing with a fabulating, downright sexy verve that’s not frequently found in Anderson’s works. There’s a willfulness to The Brothers Bloom that, in my eyes, makes it the closest of Johnson’s works to The Last Jedi. And, last but not least, it has reminded me of two things:
I love a good con movie.
But I cannot, will not, trust a con movie.
What I love about a good con movie is the playfulness, the instability of the narrative and the characters. A con is characterised by making the mark believe something is true when it actually isn’t. There’s usually a reveal that pulls the rug from under the feet of some poor schmuck who believed the con artist. In that respect, it’s an inherently metafictional genre: like the writer or filmmaker, the con artist is the weaver of tales that, in the end, are entirely made up – yet both the audience and the storyteller maintain the fiction for as long as possible, and this balancing act is part of the enjoyment. “What happened next?” Nothing, of course, because a fictional story never happened to begin with – but in the shared imagination of the audience and the storyteller anything can happen. Fiction is like the box Schroedinger kept his cat in, and until the box is opened it contains the potential of absolutely everything. Con movies play with this, and they know that the best way to keep their mark hooked is to be a good storyteller. Like Sheherazade, their cons (and frequently they) live while the mark wants to know what happens next.
Especially in modern con movies, the audience is often as much of a mark as whichever movie character is being conned by the protagonists. Even if I had hunches beforehand, I probably became aware of this most when I first saw The Usual Suspects, very much a Sheherazade-like film and one of the first films I’d watched consciously that built towards a big twist. The Usual Suspects can be enjoyed as a straight-forward thriller, but only just about; its last five minutes depend on a con aimed as much at the audience as at Verbal Kint’s antagonist, Detective Kujan. As the mark of such a cinematic con, there are basically two ways to react to having been played: you can feel cheated and resent the film or you can appreciate the con’s craftsmanship and style, the thrill that is akin to seeing a magic trick pulled off to perfection. Obviously there’s no real magic, the guy with the top hat didn’t really produce a rabbit out of outdated headwear – but the illusion itself can be highly enjoyable, even when you know it’s an illusion.
However, the problem with this is that I don’t trust a con movie – or rather, I don’t trust it to do certain things. Ideally I trust it to pull the greatest trick on me, I trust it to con me. In other words, I trust it to be untrustworthy. When a con movie aims for something more than a fantastic magic trick, though, it runs into the problem of its own untrustworthiness. For all its playfulness, The Brothers Bloom wants to end on a bittersweet, poignant note – and this requires us to buy into the characters sufficiently to care for them. We need to believe that they are, at least mostly, who they appear to be, and we need to be able to take certain things at face value. In a con movie, though, we’re conditioned to see the characters, in particular the protagonists, as assorted masks and costumes pulled from the rack in order to fool us. The con man wants us to believe his life-or-death tale – but how can we if we know him to be a con man? If every knife is retractable and every bullet is a blank, if death itself is just another temporary role, we can enjoy a tale well told, but we don’t mourn or commiserate.
I’ve rarely felt this as acutely as I did while watching the denouement of The Brothers Bloom – but this distrust of what we’re being shown affected the entire film, to the extent that I was second-guessing most of what I was being shown. Early in the movie we’re introduced to the naive but highly enthusiastic heiress Penelope, played by Rachel Weisz. She’s the mark for the eponymous brothers’ final con – but the way she enters the story and makes a place in it for herself makes it look like she is pulling a reverse con, in particular on the younger brother, Bloom Bloom (Adrien Brody, and yes, that’s indeed the character’s name), so as a result I watched her character expecting a big reveal: that she was in on the game, that she and Stephen Bloom (Mark Ruffalo) were pulling a fast one on the younger Bloom, and accordingly on us. Even after the film’s ending, which aims for grand tragedy (though tragedy with a self-consciously dramatic flourish), I still couldn’t shake the impression that The Brothers Bloom was trying to work a con on me and that I’d figure it out if I just gave it more thought. The con genre had trained me never to trust a con man or indeed woman, and if I’d opened the box and found a dead cat inside, well, then clearly that was just a clever, furry, cat-shaped box that would reveal something else yet again. Even now I’m not entirely sure I’m supposed to feel bad about the dead cat, if that’s indeed what it is.
Con movies are great. A good con movie knows that storytelling and trickery for their own sake are fantastic, that you can play your mark to the hilt and they will thank you for it with laughter and applause. Just know that if you train your audience to distrust you at all times, it may prove impossible to get them to trust you when you need it most.