Spoiler Warning: The Brothers Bloom is best watched with little foreknowledge. This article explicitly discusses the ending.
The Last Jedi should provide Rian Johnson with an interesting balancing act. The Force Awakens set up a lot of unanswered questions, as is J. J. Abrams’ wont, and now Johnson’s follow-up needs to deliver the answers. Who are Rey’s parents? Why did Luke Skywalker disappear? What’s the deal with Supreme Leader Snoke? Who is (are?) the titular last Jedi? Most importantly: how does a writer-director fill in these mysteries while avoiding the dreaded info-dump?
Fortunately, Johnson has experience in this field. His often-overlooked second feature, The Brothers Bloom, is a twisty con-artist caper that constantly pulls the rug out from under its characters and the audience. The frequency with which the film’s reality is turned upside-down demands that a lot of information be communicated very quickly, without slowing down the plot, again and again. Johnson pulls this off by drawing from the best of grifter-movie tradition, adding some innovation of his own, and – most importantly – trusting his audience.
The Brothers Bloom culminates in a particularly big twist that drastically changes our perception of the preceding scenes. Bloom (Adrien Brody) is convinced that his brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) has orchestrated a convoluted con to give Bloom a fresh start with mark-turned-lover Penelope (Rachel Weisz). The scheme involves Stephen faking his own death at the hands of pretend Russian mobsters in order to scare Bloom and Penelope away from the brothers’ dangerous con-artist lifestyle. As the couple are driving into the sunset, the twist hits: Bloom realises the con wasn’t a con after all. The Russian mobsters were real, Stephen really is dead, and the couple really are on the run. The only con was Stephen convincing Bloom it was all a con.
That is, to put it simply, a lot. It’s exactly the sort of thing that’s ripe for explanation via long-winded info-dump. For a recent and heinous example, see the lecture that caps off “Men Against Fire” in Black Mirror’s third season. Johnson, however, pulls it off with a single visual, no dialogue, and some clever set-up from an hour and a half earlier.
That’s a major design flaw in fake blood, by the way. Real blood turns brown after half an hour. —Stephen, 14 minutes into the movie
Johnson’s script prods us to remember this fact now and then without making the foreshadowing too obvious: Bloom complains that blood capsules taste like tin foil, Stephen quips “so does real blood”; Penelope susses out the brothers’ con at the end of act two by pulling a blood squib out of Stephen’s shirt. So when Johnson needs the big climactic twist to hit, he only has to show us Stephen’s “fake” blood on Bloom’s shirt cuff. Sure enough – in the half-hour they’ve been driving into the sunset – it’s turned brown.
By setting up this simple visual shorthand, Johnson does a much better job conveying the twist than I did a couple of paragraphs up. In cutting the need for explanatory dialogue, the moment is freed up to deliver as much drama and pathos as Adrien Brody’s face allows. This is not to say, however, that Johnson abhors dialogue altogether. In fact, the opposite is true: The Brothers Bloom overwhelmingly suggests that Johnson loves to wring as much fun and meaning out of his dialogue as possible. The oddball brothers and the even odder-ball Penelope pepper their conversations with literary quotes, allusions and outright invocations (“He was quoting from Kipling. He stole that from Kipling!” “No he didn’t.”). Stephen fashions himself as the writer of his and Bloom’s lives, and “writes his cons the way dead Russians write novels, with thematic arcs and embedded symbolism and shit”.
Johnson’s characters love to hear themselves speak, and when he gets the dialogue right we love to hear them too. His first feature Brick has been lauded for its unique, largely invented type of slang based on the language of hardboiled-detective fiction. The Brothers Bloom uses its own variant on the concept: some kind of ambiguously pan-20th century funny-pages grifter slang. For example “cackle bladder” is a riff on whoopee cushion and “joy buzzer” is a gag name for a blood squib. In both movies, the slang is deliberately obtuse and occasionally complete gibberish, but it sounds good.
So the purpose of Johnson’s dialogue is not to convey information in the most direct manner, but to have fun with language. Even the names Bloom and Stephen reference Ulysses, a notoriously loquacious example of a writer enjoying language for its own sake. It makes sense, then, that Johnson wouldn’t waste precious words on the joyless, utilitarian function of pure exposition.
The Brothers Bloom is not Johnson’s best film – at times it gets carried away with its own Wes Anderson-ish quirkiness, and the breadth of its globe-trotting capers often eclipses the slightly thin characterisations at the centre of everything. However, it does demonstrate the writer-director’s talents when it comes to smart structure, flavourful dialogue, and the delicate art of good exposition. Hopefully the many mysteries of The Last Jedi will be handled with equal elegance.