Love or hate the man, if there’s something undeniable about Rian Johnson’s work is that it never leaves anyone indifferent. Few working directors, if any at all, spark as much rarefied passions and uproar among moviegoers on such a consistent basis. Long before helming ‘Breaking Bad’ episodes and taking the reins on Disney’s marquee cinematic franchise, the American provocateur carved a nice niche for himself with the 2005 neo-noir ‘Brick’, an inventive independent neo-noir that received rave reviews and marked the arrival of one of the most intriguing voices in the industry.
Following the hotly anticipated release of ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’, the second entry in his successful Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery saga, Rian Johnson has further cemented his reputation as one of the most reliable mainstream directors working today. On the heels of what surely is one of the most star-studded and talked-about movies of 2022, we have decided to assess all of Johnson’s directing credits to see where his latest offering lands. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
6. The Last Jedi (2017)
To Johnson’s credit, it would be somewhat disingenuous to pin all the blame of the terribly underwhelming Star Wars sequel trilogy on him. The director was dealt a bad hand when Disney hired him to come up with answers to all the “mystery boxes” first introduced and abandoned two years prior by JJ Abrams’ soft reboot. But if the 2015 creatively-bankrupt revival duly received some backlash for nostalgia baiting and soured much of the fans’ goodwill for George Lucas’ once-beloved IP, Johnson’s follow-up completely evaporated what might have been left of it.
Picking up right where ‘The Force Awakens’ left off, ‘The Last Jedi’ marked the long-awaited return of fan-favorite Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who grudgingly agrees to train Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the ways of the Force in an effort to trump Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and put an end to the Empire (now referred to as First Order) once and for all. Whereas Abrams’ iteration was accurately pinpointed as an uninspired retreat built around recycled ideas, Johnson’s take represents the opposite, but equally maddening, breed of modern blockbusters — the type that wrongly assumes subversion, in and for itself, can be its sole and only redeeming feature.
Not even Johnson’s sparse visual flourishes and Adam Driver’s serviceable turn can salvage a self-satisfied yet muted spectacle that not only seems constantly at odds with itself but feels far more preoccupied with stirring up controversy than moving its story forward.
5. The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Though he still had a long way to go before ironing out his style, hitting his stride and reaching the peak of his filmmaking powers, there’s much to be appreciated in Rian Johnson’s sophomore movie and first major studio production. ‘The Brothers Bloom’ is an old-fashioned yet breezy comedy caper in the tradition of ‘The Stinger’ that charts the wrongdoings of two brothers (Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody) — a pair of cunning, two-timing con men who earn a buck swindling unsuspecting millionaires and have now set their eyes on a wealthy heiress (Rachel Weisz).
‘Knives Out’ enthusiasts will easily tune to the film’s quirky wavelength, as many of the elements and traits that helped the two installments become zeitgeist smashes can be found here too, albeit in a less refined expression. Johnson, despite his relative inexperience behind the camera, swaggers through the film with extreme confidence — ratcheting up the pace, tension, and tongue-in-cheek humor while filling the story with clever banter and unexpected turns as he’s accustomed us lately. Admittedly, the end result is excessively smug and doesn’t hit the landing with its grand pay-off nearly as convincingly as the two Benoit Blanc-led mystery adventures. However, as far as sophomore efforts go, this movie is nothing to scoff at, and will most likely land with any Johnson’s diehard fan.
4. Looper (2012)
After cutting his teeth on the small screen for years and twice on the director’s chair, Rian Johnson took his first real stab at the mainstream in 2012, proving once and for all that he was no longer just a promising indie darling, but someone ready to play with the big boys too.
The director put his first sizable budget to good use in ‘Looper’, an inventive science fiction film set in a near-future where the mob sends targets back in time to be dealt with and disposed without a trace. All is well for the man hired to pull the trigger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), until he finds his lifeline jeopardized once his higher-ups decide to tie up loose ends. Central to the film’s emotional backbone and lasting impact is the intriguing relationship between the titular ‘looper’ and an older version of himself (Bruce Willis, in what might very well be his last great role).
Though it hardly reinvents the wheel with its well-worn premise, Johnson shrewdly manages to eschew redundancy by offering a refreshing new perspective, solid characterization, and most importantly, daring to grapple with the moral conundrums laid out by its central conceit. It comes as no surprise that the director would later leverage his work here into shooting the likes of ‘The Last Jedi’ and ‘Knives Out’.