Rian Johnson Knives Out set

“I just didn’t think it was realistic enough.”

How often have you heard someone’s complaints about a movie essentially boil down to this talking point? If you’ve spent enough time on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube comment sections, you’ve heard it. No matter the forum, film-related discourse in the 21st Century undeniably tends to fall back onto realism. Not that this is problematic in and of itself, but look no further than the cottage industry of popular “satirical” video channels that have gained massive followings in the past decade or so and focus exclusively on lazily snarking on factual inaccuracies and “unrealistic” plot elements to see just how easily this mode of thinking can go awry.

But what is realism, anyway? And what does director Rian Johnson have to do with this conversation? This might seem like a dumb question, but any proper discussion of film and filmmaking styles must first acknowledge the historical context. Let’s define our terms.

“Realism” and “formalism” are two such styles that date back to the very creation of moving pictures as an art form. First popularized in the mid-1940s, French film theorist Andre Bazin spearheaded the argument that realism ought to be the purest function of cinema, by which the combination of certain camera techniques, editing styles, and shot compositions must be used for very specific purposes – namely, in removing all traces of “manipulation” on the part of the director, depicting everyday life exactly as it is, and ostensibly capturing the “objective truth” of human existence through a nearly documentary-like lens. Meanwhile, formalism exists on the opposite end of the spectrum, leveraging abstraction and expressionism to throw realism out the window in direct juxtaposition with our far less fanciful reality (this Patrick Willems video essay provides a solid overview of both film theories).

It’s arguable, in fact, that we’re currently witnessing the pendulum swing back to filmmakers and audiences alike craving realism in film after decades of formalist art, such as lavish musicals and fantastical blockbusters, dominated pop culture. Consider Christopher Nolan’s steadfast championing of the IMAX format and his commitment to grounded elements in his films. Peter Jackson made waves with his impressive, yet controversial effort to colorize and recreate sound effects along with dialogue from silent WWI footage recovered for his documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Most recently, Ang Lee’s audacious but hit-or-miss attempt at packaging 3D, 4K resolution, and High Frame Rate together for the most immersive experience possible was on full display with Gemini Man. And if the over-performance of Todd Phillips’ Joker is any indication, even comic book movies are profiting from resisting their fantasy aspirations. It would seem that many of the biggest films and most distinctive artists are leading the charge in a very specific brand of filmmaking – one that relies heavily on cinematic realism.

And then, as promised, there’s Rian Johnson.

Some of the most compelling filmmakers working today infuse their art with certain styles, themes, and concerns – ones that they can’t help but return to over and over again. In Johnson’s case, his most enduring preoccupation closely resembles what I call “cinematic unrealism”. This particular style highlights the way that the purposeful heightening and bending of real-world logic in an otherwise familiar setting can have a profound effect on storytelling… in a way that abject realism, formalism, or even the middle ground of classicism could never accomplish.

Alone, this idea of cinematic unrealism hardly scratches the surface of who Rian Johnson is as a living, breathing, constantly evolving artist. But perhaps this particular window into his work can lend insight to a singular talent who, given the overwhelmingly positive response to Knives Out, is currently operating at the peak of his abilities.

Brick

Suspension of disbelief.

Chances are regular readers of this site are familiar with that ever-fluid concept, the invisible line of boundary-pushing a viewer can reasonably accept based on the world-building and “rules” a film establishes for itself. For some, the line in the sand that shatters immersiveness and prevents engagement can amount to something as arbitrary as the visual medium of animation (anyone with elderly family members can likely attest to this). For others, all it takes to invest in a story is for a film to commit to a certain level of disbelief and then never deviate.

Naturally, Brick wastes no time in announcing precisely the amount of suspension of disbelief it requires from audiences.

From crime lords to femme fatales to moody lighting drenched in harsh shadows, Rian Johnson’s 2005 feature debut follows all the tenets of a standard neo-noir murder-mystery… with a twist: nearly all the action revolves around teens in a contemporary high school setting. So rather than, say, Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford trading self-serious barbs in a conspiratorial plot of profound implications like Blade Runner 2049, we have a teenage-passing Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivering hard-boiled dialogue with a snappy cadence and gleefully dated colloquialisms to pulpy archetypes with names like Brain and Tug and Pin, all of which should be impossible to buy into.

Oh, and that dialogue? Referring to such intoxicating speech as “heightened” almost does it a disservice – this is the snappy, dryly humorous type that almost goes by too fast to even catch, the kind that conveys personality every bit as much as it does exposition. Yet it’s delivered naturally enough that we could be fooled into feeling capable of coming up with such witticisms ourselves on the spot, though on some level we know it would sound unbearably pretentious if we tried.

Some viewers never quite manage to reconcile the idea of “But kids don’t talk like that!” with the lofty ambitions Johnson is aiming for. Those able to get past that obstacle, however, are treated to a wonderfully idiosyncratic genre mashup that functions as an adoring throwback to classic noir just as much as a coming-of-age tale of an emotionally repressed teen coming to grips with lost love.

What makes all this so effective, of course, is Johnson’s near expert knowledge of film history and the basics of storytelling. Despite such a cobbled-together budget, stylized shots and camera placements either harken back to past inspirations or further invest us in the story. Each second of careful editing doles out crucial information while withholding others, both of which contain several layers of meaning. Every instance of blocking seemingly enhances Brendan’s (Gordon-Levitt) loneliness by repeatedly swallowing him up in wide shots of the surrounding landscape, or hints at the power imbalances in the many uneasy alliances he must forge.

But it’s in the writing, from dropping these characters into such a setting in the first place to that language of “noir-ese”, where Johnson’s penchant for unrealism plants its flag and refuses to fade into the background. It’s there all throughout Brendan’s outsized journey as it turns from a quest to win back his jilted lover Emily (Emilie de Ravin) to a guilt-ridden attempt at atonement in identifying her killer(s). You can see it in every one of Brendan’s charged interactions with ex-girlfriend Kara (Meagan Good) and tough guy Dode (Noah Segan), trying to suss out clues from a pair who are clearly keeping secrets. And it’s most evident in the film’s femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner), a beautiful cipher that Johnson made sure was given the dignity of her own agendas and goals.

For me, a tête-à-tête between Brendan and the local drug kingpin (Lukas Haas, appropriately referred to as The Pin) sums up why there’s so much to love here. As the unlikely pair takes in a particularly striking sunset on the beach, The Pin suddenly brings up JRR Tolkien and his descriptive writing; the sort of prose that, in his own succinct words, “makes you want to be there.” Rian Johnson seemingly took that to heart by crafting exactly the sort of movie that makes you want to be there and yearn to live in it, even if only for a moment.

Brick is a story of tragic romances, untimely deaths, operatic drama, moody atmosphere, and sullen, broody loner teens; all filling in their genre niches and all played refreshingly straight without a wink of irony or unease, to surprisingly humorous and heartfelt results. But more than that, it’s a gauntlet thrown down in support of suspending our disbelief when it leads to an infinitely more rewarding experience. It’s an unflinching display of cinematic unreality in motion – one that acts as a key to unlocking the rest of Johnson’s movies.

The Brothers Bloom

Barely three years after his debut and not content to repeat the same trick twice, Rian Johnson’s second feature sees him dabbling in a genre where unrealism is the main goal – a story explicitly about con artists and their complicated relationship with truth, with reality itself.

Initially, the first 6 or 7 minutes of The Brothers Bloom seem to be a mere continuation from where Brick left off: in a rapid-fire montage, we’re introduced to Mark Ruffalo’s Stephen and Adrien Brody’s Bloom as a burgeoning team of talented, orphaned grifters at the tender ages of thirteen and ten, respectively. Stephen is the writer and architect of their elaborate schemes while Bloom is the performer, dutifully acting out the roles he’s been given as an escape from his insecurities. If the late actor/magician Ricky Jay’s rhyming storybook narration doesn’t give it away, the brothers’ matching outfits (black suit jackets and top hats – you know, normal children’s fashion!) and larger-than-life mannerisms immediately clue us into the tone of the film.

Looking for realism? You’ve once again come to the wrong place.

By the time the script jumps ahead 25 years, the dramatic conflict at the heart of The Brothers Bloom becomes clear. Haunted by the childhood memory of their con getting in the way of innocence and romance, Bloom has become a con man sick and tired of living vicariously through his brother’s stories, threatening – not for the first time – to break up the duo for an early retirement and desperate to live in the real world with his own experiences for a change. As Bloom struggles to articulate his wants and needs, Stephen ironically finishes the thought for his frustrated brother, “You want an unwritten life.”

That this attempted parting of ways doesn’t last for very long isn’t very surprising. What is surprising, however, is the target of Stephen’s final con, Penelope Stamp (an impeccably cast Rachel Weisz). A wealthy shut-in who’s rarely ever left home and passes the time “collecting hobbies”, Penelope has spent a lifetime observing others from a distance and teaching herself an endless variety of random skills. It’s this lonely and sheltered and book-learned existence that, on some level at least, drives Stephen to choose her as their “mark” to give her a taste of adventure with Bloom – artificial and duplicitous though it might be.

Once Bloom reluctantly accepts this latest con and hits it off with out-of-practice conversationalist Penelope after their “chance encounter”, an intimate dinner conversation about her childhood reveals why she serves as his perfect foil.

After an entire childhood quarantined due to a mistaken allergy diagnosis and then an adolescence spent indoors caring for her ailing widowed mother, Bloom gently inquires whether she feels cheated out of a normal life. As only a storyteller who loves to tell stories could put it, Penelope’s ensuing monologue – beautifully performed by Weisz and impeccably written by Johnson, it bears noting – sums up everything we need to know about this character who, in the wrong hands, could’ve amounted to little more than a series of quirky affectations. Rather than letting uncontrollable events dictate her reactions, Penelope explains how she chose to dictate her feelings through stories she told herself; ones about finding the ability to love her mother and not resent her, about making her circumstances a little less miserable, about finding “infinite beauty” in everything.

As Bloom eventually learns, con stories are inherently distortions of reality, mere fantasies that we tell ourselves and others to provide our own wants and needs. Penelope uses similar stories as both escape and self-deception. “The trick to not feeling cheated is to learn how to cheat,” as she puts it. A woman who’s always used stories to escape reality and create her own, paired with a conflicted con man seeking to escape his brother’s invented narratives in order to create his own – is it any wonder these two broken individuals were placed at the center of a con man story wrapped in a romance?

This delicate interweaving of themes is why Bloom and Penelope’s love story hits as hard as it does, especially by the end when Bloom reaches for her outstretched hand and rides into the sunset with her  “…like we’re telling the best story in the whole world”. Johnson managed to craft all this within the larger overarching idea of how unrealism can be more than just a twist on film theory. On top of entertaining us, the best stories have something meaningful to say about our experiences and The Brothers Bloom uses character, unabashedly romantic overtures, and the unrealism of a con film to do exactly that.

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