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Rian Johnson burst through the wave of independent filmmakers of the mid-2000s with a debut film that was defiant in its design, and has translated its success into such heights that he’s directed one of the most talked-about franchise entries of the new century. In between making his five features, including Knives Out, opening this week, Johnson has directed some seminal episodes of the brilliant TV drama Breaking Bad (including a final-season episode that many critics and fans accurately dubbed the series’ best hour), helmed some music videos, and more. But the movies he’s directed, leaping from genre to genre with ease and confidence, are what make him such a special filmmaker within his generation. Which of his five films is best? Which is merely good? And why? Read on.

5. The Brothers Bloom

Overview

After Johnson broke out on the independent-film scene with his feature debut Brick, he managed to move up somewhat in terms of his clout with his sophomore feature, The Brothers Bloom. With Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and Rachel Weisz as the leads, this caper dramedy has all of the right pieces to be one of the great modern con movies. In reality, though, The Brothers Bloom is both unexpectedly tender in its key relationship between brothers, and a bit of a mild letdown when it comes to the cons themselves.

Ruffalo is the more headstrong of the two con men, as Stephen Bloom. His brother Bloom Bloom (Brody) is a slightly more unwilling participant in their latest con, targeting a charming but very bored heiress (Weisz). And wouldn’t you know it, as the con continues, Bloom starts falling for the rich Penelope, which would cause the con to go south. It’s not even that some of the ingredients of The Brothers Bloom, from its globe-trotting sensibility to a romance that might destroy the intricately plotted scheme to crumble, are familiar. It’s that those ingredients are synthesized in a way that simply falls mildly flat.

Ruffalo, just a couple years before he became a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Brody both fit their roles quite well. (And Brody, a year off of his work in the underrated Wes Anderson film The Darjeeling Limited, is very convincing as the more emotionally minded of the two brothers.) But there’s a somewhat forced daffiness to the tone of the film, which is undercut by the darker, more tragic finale. Brody, Ruffalo, and Weisz do their able best with characters who could seem manic in one moment and more complex in the next. But The Brothers Bloom represented a case of potential that doesn’t line up with execution.

Signature Moment

The potential and the execution do line up perfectly in the opening sequence of The Brothers Bloom, where we first meet the young versions of Stephen and Bloom as they begin their con-artist ways. The fast-paced sequence isn’t just shot and edited crisply and speedily, but it’s narrated by the late actor and stage magician Ricky Jay. (Jay’s narration here recalls his similar function in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.) The narration and dialogue even manage to rhyme, too, adding to a sense of childlike ebullience that infuses this opening. The rest of the film doesn’t quite maintain this pace, but it’s a hell of a start.

Best Quote

“The trick to not feeling cheated is to learn how to cheat.” That line feels, in a way, like a representative element of a lot of Johnson’s films. It comes here from our heroine Penelope, whose desperate loneliness makes her both a perfect mark for the con artists of the title, and inspires her to become one herself. 

Conclusion

The Brothers Bloom proved that Rian Johnson was at home working on a slightly bigger scale with A-list actors. It’s not automatically a bad film — his style is too distinct and unique for that to happen — but a mild sophomore slump that belied his exciting output in the next decade.

4. Brick

Brick Blu-ray

Overview

Rian Johnson’s debut film was a hell of a calling card. It was a low-budget film with only a few recognizable actors, all of whom were still in the “Oh, right, I’ve seen him or her before” stage of their careers. But Brick looked like few other modern dramas, and it certainly didn’t sound anything like most movies from the early 2000s. That’s largely thanks to the decision to ground its dark high-school-set mystery with language that was straight out of Dashiell Hammett.

The title of the film refers to a brick of heroin, a fact that only gets discovered later in the film by our laconic hero Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Brendan is wounded first by his girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin, best known as Claire from Lost) leaving him, before he’s gutted to learn that she’s been killed. Before she was killed, she gave Brendan some mysterious clues to something going on in their small town, so Brendan takes it upon himself to solve her murder. In doing so, he encounters a femme fatale, a tough-guy drug dealer and his muscle, and more. 

There’s a gimmicky element to Brick — what if a noir, but with 21st-century high-school students? That, at least, could have been gimmicky, but not the way Johnson handles it both as writer and director. The script has plenty of unexpected twists and turns, all handled capably by the young cast, working with very slang-heavy dialogue. And Johnson’s direction is sleek and moody, and looks far snazzier than its very modest $450,000 budget. Brick, for some, is Johnson’s best; at the very least, it’s a resounding, feature-length statement of purpose.

Signature Moment

Getting so heavily involved with a murder case means that Brendan is going to be consorting with some devious types, sometimes not realizing it until the last possible second. Such is the case with a brief chase scene at the high school, when Brendan realizes the rendezvous he’s taking part in is really a one-on-one ambush. Brick was a famously low-budget film (the school at which the film is shot is Johnson’s own alma mater), but the chase scene has heightened tension thanks entirely to the staccato sounds of the two young men’s shoes as they dash through the outdoor hallways. The brief chase culminates in Brendan fooling the guy chasing him, by tripping him and knocking him out at an intersection. It’s a thrilling example of Johnson’s ingenuity as an indie filmmaker.

Best Quote

“I’m looking to find this big game the Pin’s played, not to gum it, but just so when its tail jams in my back I’ll know who to bill for the embalming.” People don’t talk the way they did in crime novels of the 1930s and 1940s and their related adaptations, or at least they don’t anymore. That’s why dialogue like this, from Brendan, stands out so much — it’s tough-minded, even though it could’ve sounded silly. But Gordon-Levitt makes the snappy patter work, and Johnson’s humor shines through here, too.

Conclusion

Brick is the rare 2000s-era independent film: it’s brimming with promise, but it’s also aged very well and served as proof that Rian Johnson’s career was on the rise, instead of being a flash in the pan.

3. Looper

Overview

After The Brothers Bloom, Rian Johnson set his heights just a bit higher with the science-fiction drama Looper. The heady thriller is set primarily in the year 2044, with Joe Simmons (Gordon-Levitt) doing his duty of being a looper. In this future, loopers like Joe are hitmen, hired by crime syndicates from the future to kill people in the past without any law enforcement being any the wiser. Each looper’s last victim is their older self, and before that day comes, the looper is paid in silver bars to live up the high life. 

Joe’s a dedicated looper, unwilling to go against the crime bosses, until he one day is greeted by…his older self (Bruce Willis), who immediately tries to escape his fate. The ensuing story loops in a widow (Emily Blunt) at a farmhouse, her mysterious son, and plenty of striking low-fi visual effects. Looper is the kind of genre piece that studios rarely make anymore: it’s only got a mild budget, it boasts some excellent performances, and it also has some striking visual representations of a future gone to seed.

The core selling point are the performances: Gordon-Levitt, Willis, Blunt and young Pierce Gagnon as the widow’s son are all excellent in different ways. (Gagnon, whose character has some unexpected powers of his own, is genuinely unnerving in ways that go beyond the written word.) But Johnson and his longtime cinematographer Steve Yedlin capture the future the characters occupy in memorable ways, recalling the work of John Carpenter without leaning too heavily on the master and his techniques. Looper also evokes other futuristic dramas like 12 Monkeys, in part because of the presence of Bruce Willis, who delivers his last great performance as the somewhat wiser, older, gruffer version of a young Turk who doesn’t know how dark his future will be.

Signature Moment

Early in Looper, we understand just how bad an idea it is to run away from your fate, if you’re an old version of a young looper. Joe’s friend Seth (Paul Dano) reveals that his old self escaped, and his punishment is swift and horrific. The young Seth is soon captured by the syndicate, which subsequently tortures him by cutting off one limb after another — a development we only see when the older version of Seth realizes he’s down one finger…then two…then more. Eventually, he all but vanishes into thin air — it’s a creepy, terrifying sequence that raises the stakes immeasurably.

Best Quote

There’s only one answer here: “I’m from the future. You should go to China.” This line, spoken by the crime boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), is one of the most economical ways to help build out the world of this futuristic neo-noir. Our hero Joe isn’t sure how he wants to spend out his days after leaving the business of looping, but Abe knows exactly where he should go without having to tell us why another country might be appealing in the future. Daniels’ dry delivery makes this one of the funnier one-liners in a film that isn’t ostensibly a comedy.

Conclusion

Looper is arguably the film that proved not only that Rian Johnson was a bona fide writer/director who could handle a moderate budget, but that he was as interested in exploring character dynamics in genre fare as he was in working within the indie space. Looper is also just one of the most exciting, compelling science-fiction films of the last decade.

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