Monday, December 8, 2014

The Brothers Bloom and the Nature of Sacrificial Love

Here is a thing that is true: there is no truer thing than love. Not lust or passion or excitement masquerading as love, not some weak watered-down nicety or even kindness. Love, real love, is true in a way that makes other truths seem incomplete. Because love, real love, cannot lie, and isn't afraid to get its hands dirty. Real love is about sacrifice. Real love is true no matter how fictional it is.

Which is good, because, at times, love is super freaking fictional. Or maybe it's that fiction is full of love? I'm a philosophy major and I don't even know. What I do know is that sometimes I need to be reminded of what really is, and what it really should be. And that is and should be are meaningless words next to the unfettered reality that is our lives, whether we plan them out or not.

Basically what I'm trying to say is that I watched The Brothers Bloom for the second time yesterday, and that movie is deep. That movie is true, for all that it is literally about lies. And that movie is entirely about love, even when it seems like it's just a silly adventure story.

It's kind of the best.

So, The Brothers Bloom is a quirky little indie that came out in 2008, directed by Rian Johnson (who also did Brick and Looper and has been announced as the director of some upcoming Star Wars sequels). It's a mobius strip of a movie, with the plot all convoluted and the whole thing revolving, explicitly and implicitly around the relationship between two brothers: Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody). Let's see if I can summarize this without making my head explode.

Stephen and Bloom are orphans, cast off into the foster system as children, and grew up only ever being able to rely on each other. They figured out early on how to make trouble, but it was much harder for them, or really much harder for Bloom who is the main character here, to figure out how to fit in with the other children and simply be happy. Stephen, an insanely clever boy, decided that the best way to do this, to help his brother and profit himself at the same time, was to create a con. 

The con was basically that they'd turn a tidy profit exploiting the local kids, but that Bloom would get to play with said kids while the con was in process. Being told to play a role opened Bloom up to be able to reach out to other people, and Stephen considered the con a success.

And then he never stopped. For the next twenty years, the narrator tells us, Stephen and Bloom worked as con artists. At one point they ended up in St. Petersburg and learned their trade from a ludicrous and cruel Fagin character: Diamond Dog (Maximillian Schell). Later, they struck out on their own (after thoroughly burning bridges with DD), and became con men in their own right. They even picked up a partner, the ineffable Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi).

But as time wears on Bloom starts to resent Stephen. He gets frustrated with how his brother scripts every single part of his life like he scripts his cons. As far as Bloom can tell, nothing in his life has ever been real, has ever been unscripted. He wants to get away from his brother and try to live a "real" life, one with no writing, no roles, and no Stephen.

Obviously Stephen is not okay with this. His brother is his life. He loves his brother. And he thinks his brother is making a huge mistake.

So, after letting Bloom stew for a few months, Stephen comes up with a plan. One last big con to get everyone what they want. They'll make a huge splash, go out with a bang, and then Bloom can go off and live his unscripted life. Only, of course, things are never that simple.


The con is pretty cool, all things considered, and deftly demonstrates how good a writer Stephen truly is. Their mark is a wealthy heiress who is both bored and lonely. Penelope (Rachel Weisz) has millions of dollars, lives on a gorgeous estate, and is a complete wreck of a human being. Declared allergic to most of the known world as a child, she spent her entire youth and adolescence locked up in her house, hermetically sealed, bored out of her mind. Then, when they found out what was wrong with her, her mother got sick, so she stayed to care for her. Leaving her where she is now, a thirty-three year old woman who has never left home and longs for adventure while being slightly unable to hold a conversation.

Also, because she was so deeply bored, Penelope kind of managed to become an expert in just about everything. She can juggle chainsaws while riding an extended unicycle, make a pinhole camera out of a watermelon, and even breakdance.

The con involves taking Penelope on the ride of her life. Bloom inserts himself into her life and floats the whiff of romance and adventure in front of her, tantalizing her with the idea of going to look for antiquities in Greece and Paris. Then they bait her with some stories about them being smugglers and an offer to go after and steal a very old manuscript. Penelope buys it all, hook, line, and sinker. She's caught, and happily so, because the adventure is so much fun.

But Bloom feels bad, because Penelope is a genuinely lovely person and they're planning to con her out of rather a lot of her money. Stephen insists that she won't miss it, because Penelope will be getting what she wants: an adventure. And the perfect con is the one where everyone gets what they want. Bloom, though, is a pessimist. He's dour and depressed and unhappy. He is, as Penelope so colorfully puts it, "constipated in the soul."*

Now, I won't go ruining how it all works out, because a lot of the fun of the movie is trying to untangle what of the action on screen is part of Stephen's plan for the con, and what is, so to say, "real". Bloom's obsession with finding something unscripted is admirable, but a little bit of a wet blanket, and the real fun comes from seeing Penelope come alive as she's told more and more lies. The thing is, as Penelope herself points out, she doesn't care that they're probably lies. She wants them to be true, and that's enough for her.

The movie builds and builds, pulling out twists and stops until we finally get to the ending. See, throughout the whole film we've been asking a question: how much of what is happening is part of Stephen's plan? We get glimpses of things that don't seem to be intentional, like a telegram from Diamond Dog that Stephen immediately burns, or when Penelope gets arrested in Prague for blowing up a castle, but we're never really clear on how much is meant to be there. What is the end game? What is real?

We as the audience don't know. Well, we don't know until the very final absolute end of the movie. The last two minutes, to be precise. And the ending completely blows me away. It tells us full what is real and what is not, but in a way that allows us to still ask the question. More than that, the ending calls into question everything else that Stephen has done throughout the entire film, suggesting that even the things that were not "planned" were part of the plan.


The ending of the movie, since it reveals what is real and what is not, is obviously a pretty big spoiler. But it's hard to talk meaningfully about the film without saying it, so here goes. At the very end of the film, Stephen drags the gang back together one last time to pull off another con. Penelope, having now learned that she was truly conned, is now totally on board to become a con artist, while Bloom continues to drag his feet about everything. Bang Bang is pretty much just silent and somehow also snarky, which is her thing.

Stephen's final plan takes them to St. Petersburg, where Bloom and he learned to be conmen but were also quite literally abused by Diamond Dog. Bloom is still pretty traumatized by what they went through, but Stephen promises to protect him, and insists that they can't make the con any other way.

Things start to go off the rails pretty quickly, though, when it becomes clear that whatever Stephen's plan is, this isn't how it was supposed to go down. Stephen is kidnapped and held for ransom, Bang Bang disappears, and Bloom and Penelope are left to figure out what to do. Bloom kind of thinks its another of Stephen's stories, just another con, but Penelope would rather hand over the money and be safe than worry about what's real.

The thing is, it both is and isn't real. Because at the meet where they're supposed to hand over the money in exchange for Stephen, a gunfight breaks out. Bloom is able to finally overcome his fear of Diamond Dog and take action, but in so doing, he gets into the line of fire. Stephen tackles him down and takes a bullet in the back for his brother. All very poetic and cinematic and pat, right?

Then Stephen gets up and jokes with Bloom for a minute before sending him on his way. It was all a ruse, right? All a bluff. Now go live that unwritten life you want so badly, and I'll see you when I see you. Bloom and Stephen finally see each other the way they're supposed to, and Bloom leaves a happier, lighter man.

And then Stephen dies of a gunshot wound.

I's hard to explain this scene if you haven't seen the whole movie, but take it from me, it packs a wallop. The slow dawning realization that Stephen would do anything for his brother, up to and including dying for him, and the way that he can't bear for Bloom to be sad, even if it means denying that he is dying in his last minutes so he can give his brother one last card trick? Ugh. It's intense. And good. 

It's true.

What I said up there in the beginning about how this movie makes me think about sacrificial love comes from this last scene, because this last scene recontextualizes the whole movie for me. I mean, we know from the beginning that all of Stephen's cons are about Bloom, but in this one we slowly come to see that this con is about Bloom becoming his own man. There's also a possibility, and I like that it's never explicitly confirmed or denied, that Stephen knew he would have to die at the end of this con. That he wanted to go out like this.

Personally, I think he did. There are little breadcrumbs of it throughout the film. The telegram from Diamond Dog. The way we see that Bloom is so utterly afraid of DD and so utterly incapable of confronting him. Stephen's almost pathological need to cure people's problems with cons. Stephen's need to protect his brother at all costs, even if it means intentionally bringing DD down on himself so that Bloom can live a free life and never be chased by his demons again.

I don't know if that's what we're supposed to think happened. But it doesn't matter. Because this is the version I like best. This is the version that is true, whether or not it's real. Because this is the version where Stephen loves Bloom in a way that literally and completely transforms Bloom's life.

Stephen loves Bloom in a way that is whole and complete and let's be real, completely unearned. Bloom doesn't love Stephen that way. Bloom can't even conceive of loving his brother like that, without any reservations or stops. Bloom loves his brother the way that most of us love each other. With caveats and holds and addenda that make it clear that yes, he does love him, but when he says he'll do anything for Stephen, what he means is anything within reason.

Stephen will do anything for Bloom. Anything at all. He will die for his brother. But, even more, he will help his brother learn to live with his death. He will live a life that revolves around making his brother understand how loves he is. That's how Stephen loves his brother. That's how love is supposed to work.

And in a very real sense this movie is about Bloom learning how to love like that. 

The way that Stephen loves Bloom seems kind of crazy and intimidating and a little weird to us as an audience. He's so obsessive and intense and focused on Bloom. Stephen really doesn't think about himself at all in the movie, and you can tell. I mean, there's all this subtextual stuff about Stephen being in a relationship with Bang Bang and we can assume that Stephen probably has other things in his life, other friends, but really his whole life is about Stephen.

And that seems weird until you realize that Stephen (and to a less explicit sense, Bang Bang), already knows exactly who he is and how loved he is. Stephen is capable of focusing all of his time and energy and life on helping his brother because he doesn't need to justify himself. He is loved, and so he can pour that love out. In other words, Stephen is the most secure human being in the history of the planet, and that's why he's able to devote his life to his brother.

I'm not, for the record, saying that I can or do love anything like the way that Stephen loves Bloom. I would very much like to, but the fact of the matter is that I am nowhere near secure enough for that. I am not sure enough of who I am and how loved I am to be able to put it aside and love others with that fullness and intensity. But I want to. I really really really want to.

I think, though this I'm less sure on, that Bloom wants to as well. I can imagine that growing up with Stephen as a brother, with a brother who loves you that much, could be kind of crazy-making. Because all at once, Bloom doesn't know how loved he is, but he also seems to resent how much Stephen loves him. He resents the implications of Stephen's love. He resents the idea that he owes his brother something for this love. Not that he does. Not that Stephen has ever tried to collect. But Bloom feels both underloved and indebted, and he hates both of those feelings.

A huge part of his arc in the movie is learning how to love someone well. Penelope, for all that she was sheltered as a child and stunted as an adult, has chosen to love and live well, and that comes out in her as a person. 

She loves openly and freely because, as she says, "This was a story about a girl who could find infinite beauty in anything, any little thing, and even love the person she was trapped with. And I told myself this story until it became true. Now, did doing this help me escape a wasted life? Or did it blind me so I didn't want to escape it? I don't know, but either way I was the one telling my own story..."

Bloom needs that. He needs very much to choose to love Stephen even though he doesn't know how. He needs to choose to let Penelope love him and let himself love her. He needs to stop trying to measure up to Stephen's love, and just accept how incredibly loved he is. He needs to understand the idea that you are not loved because you are beautiful, but you are beautiful because you are loved. That loving a thing or a person or an idea makes it lovable, not the other way around.

There's a lot that I find Biblical and spiritually important in this movie, and in the story of Bloom and Stephen, but I'll boil it down to this: I know that God loves me like Stephen loves Bloom, and I know that most of the time I react to God's love like Bloom does. I run, I complain, and I fester about the frustration of being unable to match up against such ineffable love.

But when I do all of that I completely miss the point. I miss the fact that love is not a competition. I don't have to be able to love God as much and as well as he loves me in order to be worthy of that love. I can't. That's why it's called grace.

Instead, I have to learn how to let myself be loved. I have to learn how to accept the love that God offers, and then, secure in how loved I really am, offer it to other people. Because that's the only way this really works. Love is endlessly sacrificial, not in that it demands sacrifice, but in that it willingly gives of itself and in so doing creates more.

When you know just how loved you are you are fully capable of loving others. And that's who I want to be. I don't want to be Bloom, bumbling and wandering and complaining about how all of this is fake and cheap and a scam. I want to be Penelope: staring at the world in wonder and insisting that even if it's not "reality", it's still absolutely beautiful. I want to come alive in how loved I am, and learn how to love others like that. I want to be a Stephen, a Penelope, a Bang Bang. Because that's the better path, by far.

And, as my first step, I have this to say: I am very very loved. And I love you very very much. 

"There is no such thing as an unwritten life, just a badly written one."
*This is a paraphrase. The actual line is much funnier and more full of swears.


  1. The Brothers Bloom is one of my favorite movies! It is funny, powerful, and deep, and there are so many things to talk about with this movie. I love that you focus on the nature of sacrificial love. The idea that Stephen's goal is to help Bloom love like Stephen loves, rings true. Great post!

    1. I love that there are so many complex, interesting philosophical details in this movie. It was super hard picking just one to focus on - I'll probably just *have* to go back later and revisit! But the love thing definitely stood out for me the most. Because love.

    2. There's no one in the vicinity of my residents that have seen the movie, and far less people who can understand how deep and rich this movie is. Every single monologue and every word has a meaning behind it and if anyone didn't understand Stephen's story ending, then they glanced over what he said at the beginning about the color of blood. It makes me happy to see others appreciating this masterpiece.