The Thematic Resonance of the Con Man Movie

Chad Durham
Apr 21, 2020 · 11 min read

When I was around 12 years old, I watched George Roy Hill’s classic film The Sting for the first time. I had never seen a “con man” movie before that day. The flat-out entertainment value was astounding. The Sting basically laid the template for all con man movies that followed (and even what some would consider “heist” movies, like Ocean’s 11 and The Italian Job). I like to refer to The Sting as the godfather of the con movie, accurate or not. As such, it helped to introduce a lot of the tropes that other con movies have borrowed throughout the years. Examples of these con movie tropes: (1) The audience never knows the full truth until the very end. Though the movie may pull back the curtain of the con, letting us know secrets that other characters do not, there is always something we do not know. (2) Our main characters are taking down a villain much meaner and bigger than them.This allows us to feel morally fine about their illegal activities. (3) Style is essential. Con movies have a suave flair, involving lots of money and beautiful people. Usually the filmmakers will match that with gorgeous lighting, slick costumes, exotic locales, and sleek cinematography. (4) The good guys always win. No matter how bad it looks for our heroes, they actually have it all under control. (5) Because the “ride” and the style are the prevailing characteristics, the relationships within the movie often take a back seat to the machinations of the plot. This is no to say that those relationships are not important, simply that they are more there to move the intricacies of the con along at a brisk pace.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting

Though these are not the only cliches of the con man genre, they are five of the most consistent. Following these familiar beats allows screenwriters to craft twisty stories, surprising audiences over and over while still meeting the their expectations. However, it also blunts the possible impact of the story. As much as I love The Sting (and I adore it — I still claim it as my favorite movie of all time), what I wanted to write about today is the way that three con movies of the last 20 years have broken from some of these cliches in interesting and thematically resonant ways. I want to examine the insight and surprise of Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men (2003), Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom (2008), and Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus (2015).

They all depart from the guidelines set forth by The Sting in two major ways. In these three films, the “good guy” does not win in the traditional cinematic sense and the relationships between the characters take center stage, inviting the audience to take away something more thematically substantial. Whereas The Sting was a perfect exercise in pure entertainment, these films demonstrate the beauty that can come when a little more resonance is added to the normal con movie shenanigans. (BIG-TIME SPOILER ALERT FOR WHAT’S AHEAD.)

Matchstick Men

Brief summary: Matchstick Men stars Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell as small-time con artists who operate under the premise that if you are naive enough to fall for their ploys, they deserve to take your money. Cage’s Roy suffers from some mental disorders, including what appears to be Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These mental issues can get in the way of their business. When Roy meets the daughter he never knew he had, he decides to finally give the “big con” a try, at the urging of Frank.

Explanation of the departures: Con movies are supposed to end with us smiling and amused, marveling at the complexity of the con that our heroes pulled off. Here, we are completely taken by surprise, as Roy — our lovable main character — is actually the one being conned. Frank, his longtime partner, steals Roy’s substantial savings (the movie suggests it is upwards of one million dollars) and disappears. Unlike in most con movies, the proverbial curtain was never pulled back because we were supposed to believe the only con going on was the one Roy and Frank were pulling.. We were not privy to the inner workings of the actual con. Our emotional support was with Roy, not with Frank. So instead of being exhilarated by the revealed intricacy of the illusion, we are shocked and a little bit angry to see how Frank took advantage of Roy’s myriad mental issues.

Likewise, the movie spends a great deal of time creating and exploring the relationship between Roy and his daughter Angela. He meets Angela, played by Alison Lohman, for the first time early in the film. His lifestyle is not conducive to taking care of someone else. Angela, however, breaks down his defenses, helps Roy become a more functioning and loving member of society, and even starts participating in some of his cons. But the movie saves its biggest twist for the final minutes: Roy finds out that he never had a daughter and that “Angela” was an integral part of the con perpetrated on him. It is a gut-punch for the audience, as the script spent ample time making us care deeply about the relationship between Roy and his supposed daughter. And the love and care we had for Angela evaporates immediately, as we realize that she preyed on Roy’s humanity to help Frank take his partner for a ride. It seems cruel to use the audience’s sympathies so coldly, simply to jolt them with an unexpected ending. And that’s where the script — by Nicholas Griffin and Ted Griffin — clues us in on what the themes of the movie really were.

Nicolas Cage as Roy and Alison Lohman as “Angela”

Thematic resonance: The brilliant trick that the movie pulls is helping us to understand how much better Roy’s life is because of “Angela” and Frank. Though Frank’s goals were not so noble as this, Roy was not suited for the life of a con artist, no matter how good he was at it. He was too good of a person. The cons they pulled sometimes made him want to vomit. Without being swindled by Frank, Roy would have continued on in a life that wracked him emotionally. Usually, in movies, the con artist life is seen as brilliant, fun, dangerous, and sexy. Here, we see it for what it might really be: soul-sucking, immoral, and sad. And though the callousness of making him believe he had a daughter cannot be forgiven, it helps Roy realize that he wants to be a father and that suburban life, the kind he has never envied, is exactly what he needed. The final sequence of the film shows Roy as a salesman as a carpet store, helping a young man and his girlfriend pick out carpet for their small apartment. The girlfriend ends up being “Angela.” Perhaps a lesser movie or, at least, one with smaller ambitions, would have allowed Roy to get his revenge in some churlish but satisfying way. Here, however, Roy simply gets his closure and wishes “Angela” the best. (He never gets her real name. She asks him if he wants to know her real name and he replies that he already does.) “Angela” waves as she and her boyfriend drive away and Roy returns to his new home with his new wife, who is pregnant. Even though those final scenes are only a few minutes long, they are able to truly erase the bitterness that the audience felt after Roy was swindled. A good man was cheated out of all his money, but he got everything he needed in return. Matchstick Men isn’t about con artists at all; it’s about finding the life you were meant to lead and being satisfied with that, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

The Brothers Bloom

Brief summary: The Brothers Bloom, which comes from genre-explorer extraordinaire Rian Johnson. As half of a two brothers con man team, Mark Ruffalo’s character Stephen has spent his life writing ingenious “stories” so that his brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) can live the life (lives?) that he is too shy to actually live. As the brothers enter into what may be their final con, they choose as their mark a neurotic, but impossibly charming shut-in played by Rachel Weisz, who also happens to be extremely wealthy.

Explanation of the departures: The relationship between Stephen and Bloom provides the momentum of the film, as Stephen’s choices always stem from a desire to give Bloom what Stephen feels Bloom will not get for himself. Though the brothers fight and argue, their love for one another is unquestionable. The opening scenes show the boys as youngsters, perpetrating their first con. Though the con was designed to help Bloom talk to a girl that he was too shy to approach, it establishes the main thrust of their sibling relationship: Stephen provides a wonderful, exciting but fake life for Bloom. Bloom gets what he wants — for a while — and then moves on, pushing his guilt away. At the heart of it all is these two brothers relying on each other with everything they have.

The conclusion of the movie takes the life of one of the main characters, as Stephen is shot and killed protecting Bloom from the henchmen of their longtime enemy. This is decidedly a tragic turn of events, especially as Stephen pretends, as he always did, that the blood on his shirt is part of an elaborate con he perpetrated once again. Bloom wants to believe that his brother is not going to die and so he goes along with it. It is not until later, when he realizes that Stephen’s blood — which got on Bloom’s shirt cuff — has turned brown, like real blood does, that he fully understands that his brother is dead. He breaks down, knowing that his best friend and confidant is gone.

Adrien Brody as Bloom, Rachel Weisz as Penelope, and Mark Ruffalo as Stephen

Thematic resonance: The Brothers Bloom ups the ante on considering the corrosive effects of living a life on con artistry. Much like in Matchstick Men, it asks us to consider the moral implications of living a life based wholly off of deception, as Bloom reckons with what this life has made him into. As Bloom tries to figure out if he actually loves Weisz’s Penelope, the movie asks us to look at lives dedicated to being someone else or “pretending.” The Brothers Bloom ends with the anti-climactic death of Stephen, who takes a bullet for Bloom, solidifying the fact that he would do literally anything to protect his younger brother. Rian Johnson’s script plays on the fact that audiences expect surprise after shock after twist after revelation at the conclusion of con movies. So when Stephen is “shot” at the end of the bungled final heist, both Bloom and we want it to be staged. We want to believe that every single possible outcome was accounted for by the ultra-confident Stephen. But more importantly, Bloom needs to believe it in order to ride off into the sunset, finally happy, and finally living out his legitimate, authentic life.

There are many moments throughout The Brothers Bloom where we question Stephen’s motives. Is he driven by power? By money? By creativity? The end of the movie answers the question clearly: Stephen was always driven by devotion to his younger brother. The only acceptable outcome for Stephen was Bloom’s unadorned happiness, even if that meant sacrificing himself. It is a beautifully melancholy ending. It doesn’t provide the closure that the audience was assuming would come, but it amply provides ruminative ideas, as the audience considers their own families and what we would be willing to sacrifice for those that we love.

Focus

Brief summary: Focus concerns lifelong grifter Nicky (Will Smith) and his relationship with his protege Jess (Margot Robbie). Nicky teaches her the ropes at a huge football game in Miami, which leads to romance. Once the operation is over, Nicky abruptly leaves Jess, wanting to save her from a life of deception and heartbreak. Circumstances conspire to bring them together three years later, as Nicky is executing the big con on a racing car magnate played by Rodrigo Santoro.

Explanation of the departures: Instead of having Nicky and Jess one-up each other in a game of ‘conmanship,’ the movie is much more concerned with showing us the way their relationship grows, with the backdrop of the movie’s two main cons. When Nicky parts ways with Jess, about halfway through the movie, we are able to see how it affects both of them. Nicky doesn’t work for many years, and Jess is blindsided by the decision, never really moving beyond what Nicky taught her and always haunted by the specter of what could have been. Though Ficarra and Requa save a ton of surprises for the final 25 minutes of the movie, every single twist is designed to show us something about Nicky and Jess’ relationship. None of them function as a simple “Gotcha!” for the audience, but instead an opportunity to understand the way they feel about each other.

That is why, at the conclusion of the movie, Nicky’s big con doesn’t result in any money for Nicky or Jess. They are double-crossed and end up outside a hospital with Nicky bleeding to death and with only an expensive watch for their troubles. On the outside, a crappy ending for our two heroes, but when we look closer (as the movie’s obvious tagline suggests “never lose focus”), we realize that the movie was never about the brilliance of deception but about the way love can change us.

Will Smith as Nicky and Margot Robbie as Jess

Thematic resonance: The interesting thing about the plot of Focus is that it all hinges on Nicky and Jess pining for each other. Nicky leaves Jess to keep her safe. Jess risks her life and the end of the movie to run away with Nicky. And when they are double-crossed, Jess does not care about losing the money, she simply cares about getting Nicky to the hospital so that they can start their real life together. After so much deception, it is wonderful to see them, free from all fakery, holding each other as they walk to the emergency room. They are stripped of all artifice and finally able to just worry about each other’s needs.

In the end, when Nicky and Jess have lost all of their money and most of their reputations, Ficarra and Requa invite us to realize that the characters actually have all that they wanted: each other. It seems cheesy and sentimental, and it is, but with all the gritty and clever goings-on, it seems rather refreshing to realize that the simplicity of the theme can apply to anyone watching the movie. Instead of yearning for the radiance, rhetoric, and risk of the life of a con artist, we are left grateful for the relationships in our lives, just as true and emotional and Nicky and Jess’, but without all the violence.

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