Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Brothers Bloom -- identity and an unwritten life

Director: Rian Johnson, 2008. (PG-13)

Johnson's second movie as writer-director (his first was Brick) is a caper movie built around a pair of con-men, the brothers Bloom: Stephen (Mark Ruffalo, Zodiac) and Bloom (Adrien Brody, The Pianist). But unlike most caper movies, the con is not the point. The emphasis is on the brothers' journey through life, and the film offers a discussion on life and identity.

Stephen, the older of the two, is the creator of the cons. He carefully scripts the plot with a writer's flair. For him, every little detail matters. At the center of his schemes is Bloom, the hero. He plays out the roles written for him. And when the con reaches its apex, the mark departs leaving the brothers to celebrate with a victory party before separating for a while. Their only other partner is the mysterious and almost silent Japanese woman, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), whose penchant is blowing things up.

For their final con, Stephen focuses on Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a lonely and eccentric New Jersey heiress. Living in a huge mansion, her pastime is borrowing other people's hobbies. When she finds a hobby she finds interesting, she teaches it to herself from books. That is her life. So Stephen writes Bloom as a smuggler who falls in love with Penelope, and brings her into their latest smuggling scheme.

Weisz has excellent chemistry with Brody and the acting is good throughout. Ancillary characters appear, including Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid in the Harry Potter films) as one of the con artists and Maximillian Schell as Diamond Dog, the arch-enemy of the brothers. But the plot is mushy, like a shaggy-dog story.

One of the issues Johnson raises is control. Bloom resists role-playing. He has been living his life through the identities of the people in the cons. He has been living a written life. What he wants is an unwritten life, one where he has control. He despises living under the control of another, even if it is his brother.

Do we seek independence and self-control? Sometimes we feel the burden of living under the authority of another. Our natural tendency is to want to throw off authority and define our own life. But what is the place for God? Where does he fit? Proverbs 21:1 says, "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases." God oversees the course of life to bring matters to his sovereign plan. Life, like it or not, employs a script written for us by the Writer.

Penelope contradicts Bloom's philosophy: "There is no such thing as an unwritten life, only a badly written one." Indeed, as she excitedly embraces the smuggling caper, not knowing she is being conned, she exclaims, "I know I'm pretending to be a smuggler but what you don't know is that I'm a real smuggler because I tell it like I own it." She wants to write her own life and as she does, she does so with confidence and thus writes it into "reality."

Penelope is right, in a sense. All lives are written, by someone. They are written well, or they are written poorly. As we align our lives with the Writer, God, our lives make more sense and become better written. When we live apart from God, not knowing him or deliberately ignoring him, our lives retain less meaning and are thus badly written.

The film's introduction shows the backstory of the two brothers. As boys, they are moved from home to home, until they discover their knack of the con. In their first major scam, as kids, Stephen writes Bloom into a puppy love story with a girl he likes. At its pinnacle Bloom forgets the caper and wants the relationship with the girl. But it cannot be, and his "love" is lost. Likewise, we later hear of Penelope's childhood where, through circumstances, she is forced to live apart from other kids in the large and lonely mansion. Both Bloom and Penelope have been impacted by these childhood moments.

Which brings us to the theme of identity. Bloom does not know who he really is. Director Rian Johnson asks the question, are we defined by our role? Clearly the answer is no, because Bloom has had many roles and has no distinct identity. His various roles have not defined him. What about childhood? How does that impact identity? It plays a role certainly, as seen in Bloom and Penelope. We can understand this, too, as our childhood has a significant part in who we are. The families we grow up in do shape us. But that is not the whole story. Our relationships play the dominant role. My identity is not found in my work, but in my relationship to God. I am a unique child of God (Rom. 8:16).

Toward the end of the film, as the con develops, the lines between reality and deception blur, for both the view and for Bloom. We don't know what is happening, as he does not. But Stephen leaves us with two thoughts. The first is on cons: "The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just what they wanted." Stephen wanted to write the perfect con, the perfect written life. Bloom wanted to find himself, his real person. Penelope wanted to find something or someone beyond mere hobbies. If they all get what they want, including the mark (Penelope in this case), is the con morally acceptable? If the mark willingly gives us the money and thinks he or she has gained something, is this still ethically wrong? This comes down to ends and means. The con is a deception, a ruse. It is breach of confidence; after all that is what the con-game is all about. Lying. Deceiving. Stealing. How can this be OK, even if all get what they want? It can't.

The second point is one to close on. Stephen says to Bloom, "You were the only audience I ever needed." He wrote his cons for an audience of one, his brother. He relished the appreciation of the other members of the con, but really sought only the approval of his brother. We are like Stephen, though we are not writing lives for others. We play to an audience each and every day. But if we are followers of Jesus, that audience should be God. We play to an audience of One. We should be living our lives motivated by our desire to please and serve this One who can write for us a better life.

So, how is your life? Is it badly written? Do you want it to be better scripted? Then seek the Lord while he can still be found (Isa. 55:6). Then choose to serve this audience of One. And find your true identity as his beloved child (Jn. 1:12).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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