She barely says a word. As Bang Bang in Rian Johnson’s second feature, The Brothers Bloom, Rinko Kikuchi does not have the benefit of hefty monologues that plumb her character’s soul, nor does she get the sort of clever, stylized banter dealt out to the other performers like choice playing cards around a poker table. She moves mutely through the proceedings, slyly observing and playing with different reactions to the intricately controlled mayhem around her. Another character speculates that Bang Bang may not even speak English as part of a confession that he knows little about her beyond her ability to keep up with their elaborate cons and a certain predilection for dynamite. Even the fact that she possesses a cell phone comes as a surprise to her longtime partners in chicanery. It’s tempting to compare the performance to those given before talkies took over, but those silent film actors, deeply reliant on facial and physical expressiveness, were usually given a few title cards with dialogue to help flesh out their characters and move their development along. Rinko Kikuchi has little more than herself, and with that she crafts a person that is absolutely fascinating.
The speechless nature helps, naturally. It adds mystery to her character, a lure that demands closer study. There will be no shorthand to understanding her in offhand comments or stammered out confessionals. All the information she conveys is in they way she surveys her surroundings, often with a seeming indifference to the details that are piling up as the scheme of the title siblings becomes more and more elaborate. She judges it all–sometimes literally, as when she holds up a tough numeric score in response to the acrobatic bicycle crash perpetrated by Adrian Brody’s Bloom to set the main plot into motion–with the wry disinterest of someone who can’t help but think three or four moves ahead. In rooms filled with very smart people, she still gives the sense of being perhaps the smartest, with a simmering confidence that means she feels no compunction to step up and announce that superiority. Kikuchi plays this with great care. It’s not broadly portrayed. Instead in shows up in her quietly off-kilter ways of amusing herself, creating fidgety ways of moving within her own space, finding a rhythm that no one else quite seems to keep pace with. It changes too much, often in unexpected ways. She zigs when a zag seems the inevitable move.
As with most great performances, part of the feat is in the writing. Rian Johnson creates intriguing little eccentricities and hidden skills for Bang Bang, such as meticulously peeling an apple as she sits on a ship’s deck, only to toss the fruit overboard upon completion of the task, snacking on the lengthy ribbon of skin instead. These happy sidebars are rich, but Kikuchi making them more alluring with abundant charm. It’s funny enough when she responds to a slight by bringing forth her concealed skill in a shuffleboard game, executing a move of geometric genius to send her opponents pucks sliding out of scoring position to leave her with a clear dominance, but it’s Kikuchi’s reaction of feigned innocent delight that really sells the moment. It’s a cute trick, but Kikuchi makes it into a great character moment, giving a glimpse of Bang Bang as a particularly playful alpha dog, a reminder that she will only be bested if she’s decided that’s the most beneficial (or perhaps amusing) things that could happen at the moment. Everything is on her terms.
Kikuchi previously received an Oscar nomination for her work in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel, and she was indeed the best thing about that deeply flawed film, the only actor within the ponderous self-importance of the multicultural dirge to dig for some deeper level of truth within her role. In many respects, this performance hits completely opposite notes. Where she was previously innocent, she is now highly skilled with flinty hints of worldliness. While the other performance is notable for its aching vulnerability that verges on complete fragility, in The Brothers Bloom she is powerful and in complete command. In Babel, you want to hug her and tell her everything will be all right. Here she’s the one you’d look to for reassurance. She’s the person you’d want to hide behind when things got tough. The range that represents may not necessarily be surprising, but it surely is impressive. And it’s all expressed, it bears restating, with no more than a couple of spoken words.
Who needs dialogue anyway?
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)