Ruben Brandt, Collector Review: A Swirling, Surreal Heist Thriller

Ruben Brandt, Collector Ruben Brandt, Collector (photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

A stunningly beautiful blend of off-kilter animation and psychedelic visuals, the Hungarian animated film uses art to explore the subconscious.

At the heart of Milorad Krtić’s animated film Ruben Brandt, Collector is a fascinating question: Do we create art, or does art create us? This swirling and surreal film mixes together elements from art and film history, defying genre and reality in an art heist thriller that plumbs the depths of the subconscious.

Famous psychotherapist Ruben Brandt (Iván Kamarás) specializes in using art therapy to help his criminal patients overcome their flaws to improve their extralegal career paths. At night, however, Brandt is tormented by nightmares populated by the subjects of famous works of art: the diners at Hopper’s Nighthawks, Botticelli’s Venus, Warhol’s Double Elvis. Brandt’s patient Mimi (Gabriella Hámori) comes up with a scheme to exorcise Brandt’s demons by kleptomania rather than creation, and she and a coterie of other criminals travel the globe to steal the works of art. Hot on their trail is detective Mike Kowalski (Csaba Márton), who uncovers the secret that Brandt’s obsessions were placed by Brandt’s father through subliminal messages in cartoons he watched as a child.

RBC wears its influences squarely on its sleeve. Littered throughout the film are references to famous paintings, as well as the cubist style of the animation, and influential films, including lifting the dancing scene from Pulp Fiction. Overall, the movie is a pastiche, it moves smoothly between feeling like a heist movie, to a film noir detective story, to even like a Hollywood blockbuster action flick. On the surface this mishmash of direction may appear haphazard, or that Krtić can’t decide the route he wants to take. However, the way in which the film jumps genre mimics the logic of dreams, specifically that there isn’t any. The narrative moves seamlessly between Brandt’s dreams and reality, and it is often hard to tell if we are in the real world or a dream. People in the real world don’t follow the normal domains of physics (one character is two dimensional, and thus able to slide under doors or behind picture frames. It even turns out his father was a one-dimensional line, perhaps a sly reference to Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man). The facial features of many characters appear cubist in nature, with malformed faces, or additional eyes.

Further breaking down the barriers between dreams and reality, when Brandt wakes up from an art-themed nightmare, he is mirroring the actions in dreams in the waking world (e.g., the dream ends with one of Hopper’s nighthawks holding a gun to Brandt’s chin – when Brandt wakes up, a bottle is pressed up against his chin like the muzzle of a gun). Even stranger, while tracking down the art thieves, Kowalski discovers video footage of  Brandt in a somnambulant state in front of the artwork in question, mimicking the struggles in his dreams.


We tend to think of art as something we merely create or consume, but Artić suggests in Ruben Brandt, Collector that art, in turn, creates us.

While references to art and film run deep and wide in the movie, this shouldn’t be a deterrent to a mainstream audience. While the film tackles loftier subjects, it intersperses the narrative with exciting action sequences. We are introduced to Mimi and Kowalski by a high-intensity car chase through the crowded streets of Paris, à la Ronin. In the culmination of a subplot between Mimi and some gangsters she stiffed, the resulting scene looks like something out of a Michael Bay blockbuster, with acrobatics, car stunts and plenty of explosions. Krtić isn’t afraid to blend high art and low to create something accessible to most people. The frequent location changes keep the pacing of the film brisk, treating the viewer to landscapes like Paris, New York, Florence, and Chicago. Despite the lack of realism in its characters, the setting seems real. The chase scene set in O’Hare accurately depicts the labyrinthian feel of the massive airport, and even throws in a shot of Michael Hayden’s The Sky’s the Limit.

That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have its flaws. The aforementioned Mimi subplot with the gangsters feels like filler, providing very little emotional depth for her, merely pretense to put the femme fatale in exciting situations. Also, while the art direction is painterly and simple at the same time (the character’s motions hearken back to the original Æon Flux) there are times where awkward 3D models pull you out of the feel of the film.

We tend to think of art as something we merely create or consume, but Artić suggests in Ruben Brandt, Collector that art, in turn, creates us. We soon learn that Brandt’s obsessive collecting relates closely to his father’s machinations, the elder Brandt spliced in frames of art in young Ruben’s cartoons – all in the hope that his son will be inspired to become a great artist. Instead, Ruben is compelled by his inner psyche to possess these artworks, to be defined by them. This is mirrored in Kowalski’s love of film memorabilia. What we consume constitutes part of our identity, sometimes in ways we don’t fully realize.

If you’re not well versed in art or film history, don’t let the seemingly esoteric subject matter of Ruben Brandt, Collector deter you. Though populated with references to famous works, they are generally well known (mostly pop art and impressionism), and at its core, you don’t need to know the reference to enjoy the film. Artić has crafted a piece that is both smart and appeals to a wider audience – and that is a rare piece of work indeed.

Ruben Brandt, Collector Trailer
Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!