Rian Johnson Handles Nostalgia Better Than Almost Any Other Hollywood Filmmaker

Rian Johnson creates films that are almost guaranteed to cause a stir, and his latest, "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery," which follows detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) once more after his successful first outing in "Knives Out," has already gotten quite a few people upset. Many are from the same crowd that was furious about Johnson's "Star Wars" entry, "The Last Jedi," and it got me wondering — what is it about Rian Johnson's films that get people so riled up, for better and worse? Johnson's fans are as fervent as his haters, but why? At a glance, he makes referential throwback films paying homage to the cinema he grew up with, like a cozier, cuddlier Quentin Tarantino. When you look deeper, however, there's a thread of rebellion and subversion throughout Johnson's work. His films are incredibly nostalgic, but they also force their characters and audiences to reconcile with some of the more challenging elements. 

Johnson has been subverting genre tropes since his debut, "Brick," which is a hard-boiled murder mystery set in an American high school. His next film, "The Brothers Bloom," is a con artist story about the necessary trickery involved in writing fiction, and his follow-up, "Looper," is the ultimate in breaking down time-travel tropes. Johnson serves up loving, beautifully made homages to the films of yesteryear while refusing to let nostalgia override important lessons or themes. Audiences who only want to have their nostalgia catered to often end up feeling cheated, which leads to some serious online vitriol. 

"Glass Onion" is only the latest and greatest example of Johnson's ability to use nostalgia to do more than sell merchandise because he understands it's a double-edged sword that must be wielded carefully. 

Nostalgia as the starting place

In an interview with Film Freak Central, Rian Johnson explained his own relationship to nostalgia, which he feels is a huge part of his work and is often the starting place, but something he has to be careful to not just retread old ground: 

"Nostalgia can't be the end of it, right? It's an interesting place to start, but it's by definition emotional. The challenge has to be, What can I do to it? How do I sort of shake the audience a bit, not to just provoke but with the intent of getting back to the initial pleasure that the genre tried to offer, as opposed to the kind of pleasure you derive from memories of an old-time artifact? Because all that stuff is still there. You can go back and, you know, and watch 'Death on the Nile' and 'Evil Under the Sun.'"

Each of his films has an emotional connection to works that he loves, from Agatha Christie mysteries and "Columbo" to "Star Wars," but he tried to take that love and do something interesting with it in each film. In "Glass Onion" and "Knives Out," that translates as a love for murder mysteries that focused on the rich and powerful, stories that served as escapist wish fulfillment. Who doesn't want to watch a cluster of filthy rich, beautiful jerks try to murder one another in a beautiful location? Instead of simply leaving it at that, Johnson used his wealthy characters to poke fun at the contemporary rich, with "Knives Out" serving as the world's most awkward rich family dinner ever and "Glass Onion" working like an extended roast of the world's richest and most powerful idiots, a different kind of wish fulfillment entirely. 

Making the old new again with Brick

Rian Johnson's first film, "Brick," wasn't based on films that deal heavily with politics or satire. Instead, the 2005 film was based on the hardboiled detective novels that Johnson had loved reading as a youth, especially those by Dashiell Hammett, who created the detective character Sam Spade and wrote the novel "The Maltese Falcon." Hammett's detective stories are brutal and melodramatic, much like being a teenager, and that's how Johnson decided to connect the two. In the same interview with Film Freak Central, Johnson explained that "Brick" was inspired by mixing the genre tropes of the detective story with the emotional pain of adolescence, which gave him the ability to heighten everything and still allow the audience to suspend disbelief:

"Like, for instance, with 'Brick,' it was driven by the genre mashup of it but it was more about my experience in high school — but all that emotional upheaval and confusion is less of an easy question to answer than 'what if X plus Y happened?' So one is subtext and the other is structure that lets me dig into this emotional fantasy of amplifying reality, you know?"

By using the framework of noir, the ridiculous actions of the teenagers in "Brick" don't seem all that wild. They fall into the conventions of the genre, despite not looking like your typical detective story characters, and it allows for commentary on both gritty noir and high school stories. "Brick" walked so "Euphoria" could run, and it gave audiences a good idea of what to expect from Johnson's future oeuvre. 

The Brothers Bloom as a story about storytelling

"The Brothers Bloom" is perhaps Rian Johnson's least successful movie, critically and at the box office, but it's also my very favorite because it's playing with storytelling on so many different layers. It's both an ode to con man capers and a deconstruction of them, painstakingly paying tribute to movies like "The Sting" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" while also questioning the idea of a perfect con. Movie-making is a con, of course, because the people making the movie are hoping to suck the audience into the world enough that they forget reality for two hours. Johnson uses "The Brothers Bloom" to comment on storytelling within the film itself, as lonely heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz) teaches Bloom (Adrien Brody) how to live outside of the stories his brother, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) writes for them in their many scams and schemes, but it's also a meta-commentary on filmmaking and surprising audiences. 

In the end, Stephen believes that he has created the perfect con, but it has consequences that tarnish that perfection, which leads to the film's central point: perfection in storytelling is impossible, just as it is in life. We are all human and flawed, and learning to go along for the ride instead of constantly controlling the narrative can help keep us from going insane in the chaos of life. Bloom longs for "an unwritten life" and Penelope explains that there's no such thing; we are all the authors of our own destinies. 

Poking holes through hero worship in The Last Jedi

Rian Johnson's next film was the time-travel head-spinner "Looper," but we'll come back to that, because thematically, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" ties pretty well into "The Brothers Bloom." Just as Bloom learns that his brother's storytelling isn't the only truth in the world, young resistance fighter Rey (Daisy Ridley) learns that the legends of Jedi and the Rebel Alliance aren't as perfect and heroic as she once believed. "The Last Jedi" forces its audience to confront what happens when our heroes fail us, as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) reacts in a moment of fear that changes the course of his nephew, Kylo Ren's (Adam Driver), life, and that one mistake makes him so bitter that he is doomed to fail Rey as well. 

In the end, Rey realizes that she has the power to lead the resistance within herself and that she doesn't need Luke to be her hero because that heroism is already within herself. Much like the end of "The Brothers Bloom," "The Last Jedi" encourages its audience to take control of their own destiny, both the light and the dark, and to stop waiting for fate to change things for us. Luke learns how to let go of the past through Yoda, who reappears as a Force ghost and explains that Luke must "burn the tree," a metaphor for letting go of the rigid structures of the Jedi Order in order to best help Rey. He's only able to defeat Ren because he bends the rules a bit, playing a trick on his nephew that would make Master Yoda proud. It upset some fans, but was true to the original trilogy's core themes of self-awareness and striving for better.

Sacrificing the sacred

Some "Star Wars" fans found it difficult to see Luke fail because he had been a hero for so long. Just as Rey idolized him, many "Star Wars" fans put these characters on a pedestal, as infallible, unrealistic heroes in which they can try to see themselves. Even Mark Hamill was initially hesitant, frustrated that the plucky young farm boy from "A New Hope" had become an embittered old hermit, but it all falls in line with Luke's story coming full circle. In order to best serve the Force, he must let go of the strict teachings of the Jedi and his own guilt. Yoda's encouragement to burn the tree is a reminder that Luke has always had everything he needed inside of himself, not because he's a Skywalker or because he's a Jedi knight, but because he is connected to the Force. His final trick is whimsical, it's clever, and it's exactly the kind of thing a feisty kid from Tatooine might do when faced with insurmountable odds. 

Hero worship can be helpful when we're in tough situations, but it can also be detrimental when we refuse to accept that our heroes are human beings, flaws and all. "The Last Jedi" reminds us not to create golden calves out of our sacred pop culture icons, and it works as both a perfect deconstruction of "Star Wars" and a brilliant "Star Wars" movie. 

Letting go of the little things with Looper

Time travel stories tend to be incredibly complex, with a series of rules that exist in order to help avoid paradoxes, but "Looper," Johnson's third film, tries to engage with time more simply. When the time-traveling hitman Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a conversation in a diner with his future self (Bruce Willis), he starts asking his older version a bunch of questions about time travel and what it all means. The elder Joe shuts him down, replying, "I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws." This frustrated some audiences, who found the unwillingness to engage with certain sci-fi tropes to spit in the face of the genre, but I found it to be incredibly refreshing because the time travel in "Looper" exists only to be a story device. Digging into the minutiae of how it all works would just hinder the story, not help it. 

There is a tendency in online criticism to reduce storytelling to very linear and straightforward ideas, a result of conflating reductive "satire" like CinemaSins with actual criticism. Instead of trying to experience the film on its level, they look for every tiny crack in the filament, hoping to point out flaws out of some sense of superiority. By having Willis's character refuse to dig into the nonsense that really doesn't matter to the narrative, the film pushes for its audience to focus explicitly on what matters within the story instead of playing an armchair temporal physicist. 

Meta-commentary in murder mysteries

Rian Johnson's two most recent films, "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion," are both fun and sharply-written murder mysteries with more on their minds than just who committed homicide. "Knives Out" used the murder of a wealthy mystery novelist to tell a story about what happens when members of your family become people you ideologically cannot stand, while "Glass Onion" takes on faux-intellectualism with a crossbow bolt to the heart. Like all of his other work, there's a rebellious core to his mystery movies, challenging both the status quo and the very tropes that make our favorite films so great. "Knives Out" made some pretty great points about the political atmosphere, but "Glass Onion" takes it a step further and points out exactly how dangerous people preaching their ideas as the truth, without evidence, can be. When it ends up being one person's "truth" against another, with no evidence, then how do we know the facts? That's the basis of solving mysteries, but it's also a lesson in critical thinking and media literacy made all the more relevant in the era of "fake news" and regular misunderstandings of satire.

"Glass Onion" is another great Rian Johnson whodunnit, but it's made even better because he leaned into the subversive elements that upset certain audiences in "Knives Out." By the time we get to the third film, I expect some full-blown conservative pundit meltdowns, but Johnson's just doing what he's always done: turning classic cinema on its head to create something bold and new. 

"Glass Onion" is currently streaming on Netflix.