It’s often said by respected and not-so respected writers that Generation-Y is the worst generation to come into maturity. Our never-ending need to document our lives on social platforms like Facebook, our apathy for anything that is not within our purview, and apparently the worst sin of all, the fact that we are devoid of originality and must mine the past for our much maligned hipster sub-culture. Add to that people from our parent’s generation describing Millenials in the workplace as “demanding too much and not pulling their own weight” all contribute to Generation-Y being labeled by many in the press as the Me-generation. Our only contribution to culture, if one were to pay attention to the critics, is a brand of irony leaden work that is painfully self aware, chock full of navel gazing protagonists, and endlessly referencing something far older and more obscure than the derivative final product that corporations market to us.
In the case of Rian Johnson’s film output one could superficially say that the man is merely copying and pasting familiar genre tropes onto carefully art-directed backgrounds. His debut Brick (2005) explored the harshness of high school life through the prism of film noir while his sophomore feature The Brothers Bloom (2008) utilized the much loved conman/hustler archetype to tell an idiosyncratic love story and sibling bromance. And his most current feature to date Looper (2012) melds elements of sci-fi dystopian literature with the cliché “protect the homestead” trope found in a lot of Crime dramas and Westerns.
As the artist Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” And though many references abound in each of these films Johnson isn’t some hack re-appropriating the cool bits he likes from film, TV, and literature and rejiggering it to fit his movie. The references in his films appear organically and serve the story being told on screen. In an age where information and intellectual property is widely available to the masses the three films that make up Rian Johnson’s oeuvre are all set in hyper-stylized worlds which quote heavily from other media but within these extraordinary settings he explores such prescient themes as family, the impossibility of creating long lasting relationships, and most importantly the nature of storytelling itself.
Pressing play and stepping into any of Rian’s films it is easy to get lost in the art direction. In Brick the milieu is a small Southern California ghost town where high school teens roam free nary an adult in sight. And as in all films about high school there is a clear hierarchy and caste system; the top being occupied by the jocks and rich brats who can afford all the best drugs while the bottom rung is populated by the outcasts, loners, and pariahs who belong to no tribe. It’s within this caste that our protagonist Brendan (Joseph Gordon Levitt) belongs to.
Opening the film on Brendan’s eyes staring at the prone body of a teenage girl in front of a dark abyss, a long shot quickly reveals it to be the mouth of a sewage tunnel. The tunnel will play a prominent role in the film and images of dark caves and black abysses will recur throughout Johnson’s later films. It is a site linked with death and violence. As the inciting incident in Johnson’s debut begins with the death of Brendan’s ex-girlfriend, the teenage girl that Brendan is staring at the start of the film.
Her death forces our lone hero to navigate through a small town’s drug underworld. Of course, whereas the typical depiction of the drug trade pre-Breaking Bad often relied on a dead serious almost documentary presentation of the inner workings of cartels and drug dealers. Johnson’s Brick mines crime literature’s hardboiled past where everyone spoke in a specific street patois and criminals had a lot more personality; utilizing these conventions to satirize the rituals, codes, and slang that teenagers often employ to create their own sub-cultures that ironically built on the foundations of older popular culture.
As Rian Johnson stated in various interviews the primary inspiration for his debut was the pulp crime writer Dashiell Hammett whose literary creation Sam Spade became synonymous with the private eye detective. For Brick though, instead of the morally righteous anti-hero Spade, Johnson takes for his inspiration an earlier Hammett creation, The Continental Op.
Appearing in a series of short stories and two novels The Continental Op is a loner employed by the San Francisco Continental Detective Agency but in reality has no allegiance to anyone. In one of Hammett’s first masterpieces Red Harvest the Op arrives in a town torn apart by two competing gangs. Instead of waging a holy war against crime though Hammett’s anti-hero plays both sides against one another all while getting paid in the process. The Op is not above cruelty and in fact whereas Spade and later gumshoe incarnations would embody modern day knights-errant the Op could often be mistaken for the villain in the piece.
Adapted for the screen Hammett’s original story has been transposed to locations as varied as the Wild West and Edo period Japan, and the Op himself has been played by celebrated actors like Clint Eastwood, Toshiro Mifune, Bruce Willis, and Gabriel Byrne. In Brick the character of Brendan is clearly The Op’s progeny. Incapable of trusting anyone he becomes cut off from what might be considered a healthy relationship. Brendan moves through the various high school cliques and though it might be safe to assume that he learns to assimilate into the wider world the conventions of the hardboiled novel prevent such things from occurring for our lone hero.
Playing the various players in the drama against one another the final climax and denouement don’t offer much closer for Brendan. The “bad guys” may have been dealt with, the femme fatale punished for her transgressions, but like Oedipus Brendan’s narrow-minded quest to learn the truth and punish the wrongdoers results in his discovery of an ugly secret that would have been better left buried. Whereas most gritty expressionist crime dramas like for example David Fincher’s Seven (1995) would have their characters violently react and do something rash, Brendan just quietly digests the information being told to him. Our lone hero impotent and powerless in the face of great tragedy is proven to be just a mortal.
In The Brothers Bloom the eponymous brothers origin story is centered on Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), the oldest brother, devising intricate scenarios involving his little brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) inhabiting various roles in an effort to bilk unsuspecting victims of their fortunes. While Brick reveled in the ethos of the lone detective making their way through a morally compromised world the setting for The Brothers Bloom is far less dour. Though Stephen and Bloom may have their issues with each other the chemistry between Ruffalo, Brody, and Rinko Kikuchi, playing Bang Bang, the Explosives expert in the group, is apparent the first moment they’re on-screen together. This is a drama about the trials and tribulations of a gang of gentleman thieves and rambunctious smugglers.
It’s interesting to read many of the reviews for Johnson’s sophomore effort since many critics label this film as Wes Anderson-lite or a poor man’s Ocean’s 11 and yet those reductive comparisons completely miss the point. The film’s meticulous art direction and quirky characters do share a similarity with Wes Anderson’s visually unique dramas but that is because Johnson and Anderson are quoting from the same filmmakers. It’s no secret that both directors have an affinity for European art cinema from the 50s and 60s and Brothers Bloom and practically all of Anderson’s output bear this out. Yet whereas in Anderson’s film the characters are allowed a moment of catharsis that leads to a personal epiphany and the coming together of a once broken family Johnson’s film allows for none of that. Bloom, by the end, does get what he wants but at the cost of the disintegration of his makeshift family. He may walk into the sunset holding hands with the girl he loves but he hasn’t really changed. He is still an empty shell devoid of any personality other than the ones his brother created for him. He may love Penelope (Rachel Weisz), his wannabe smuggler girlfriend, but their love has only lasted as long as it has because of her tenacity. This trope of having a woman play savior and emotional anchor for our male protagonist would return again in Looper. In Johnson’s film universe men are the weaker sex compared to the strong vivacious women that populate his films.
What carries The Brothers Bloom along and adds a lot of levity to the drama though is Ruffalo’s Stephen who is not just the leader or better yet ringleader of the group. If Bloom is the audience surrogate than Stephen is the stand in for the director. His meticulous web of lies could be seen as a post-modern commentary on Generation Y’s hyper awareness of genre tropes and narrative expectations. Our generation is so well aware of the inner workings of the various genres and sub-genres of literature, TV, and film we rarely watch something to experience something radically new but rather to have our expectations met. The cons that Stephen comes up with are so intricate that they require flow charts and a well-organized notebook to keep track of all the plot points but because Stephen, like Rian Johnson, relies on a shared knowledge of both high and low brow culture it all feels new and familiar at the same time, as Stephen says, “The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just what they wanted”, a perfect summation of the power of film and storytelling itself.
For Johnson’s third outing as director Looper is set in a dystopian world where time travel hasn’t been invented yet but assassins known as Loopers working for an unknown cartel kill and dispose of victims who’ve been sent back in time. It’s never quite clear how this world came about though one could see parallels with our own current history, i.e. rise in unemployment, the housing market crash, the ascendance of China as a major world power, being the inspiration for Looper’s setting. And a lot of background information is thrown at us, so much so that the unresolved threads could feed countless sequels, prequels, and sidequels. Referencing work as varied as Japanese anime, the conventions of time travel movies, and even Peter Weir’s Amish crime drama Witness (1985) miraculously all these varied influences don’t have the negative effect of making Looper just another derivative blockbuster picture. In fact, the film bares all the hallmarks of a Rian Johnson picture.
Aside from the fact that Joseph Gordon Levitt returns as the lead character it’s not such a stretch to say that Joe is the type of man that Brendan, from Johnson’s earlier film Brick, could have grown up to become. Both characters embody the traits of a typical loner, and both Joe and Brendan share a strong desire to be a hero to a young woman who initially didn’t ask him for help. Though in Joe’s case this desire is tied to a selfish need to get his old life back.
Looper like Johnson’s second feature The Brother’s Bloom or even Brick is a story about family and the consequences of not having the proper nurturing influences. During the film’s second act when we move away from the city and spend more time in the rural backwaters where Joe meets Sara (Emily Blunt) and her little boy Cid (Pierce Gagnon) the narrative slows down a bit and the family drama between mother and son unfurling on-screen is just as interesting the shoot’em up action set pieces. Cid is, like most young children, unable to control his emotions. Unlike typical kids his age though Cid has been gifted with telekinetic powers, an ability he is unable to wield unless in great stress and even than he can’t quite control it. Joe, a man who was sold to a gang while still a young boy, must protect this boy from his older self, played by Bruce Willis, since Cid will grow up to be a murderous tyrant in the future. Yet the reason for Cid’s cross over to the dark side is because of the death of his own mother, an act ironically caused by Joe’s older self. This cyclical “chicken or egg” scenario is only broken with the younger Joe sacrificing himself, literally not just ending his loop but the cycle of death and destruction.
The narrative employment of orphans and abandoned children can be seen in Johnson’s other pictures like in Brother’s Bloom where the brothers in the film are orphans who’ve been shuffled around from one uncaring foster parent to another until finally coming under the tutelage of a brutal gang leader. Of course, unlike Joe who is merely a single child the strong emotional bonds that the brothers share with one another making it possible for them to grow up as fairly well adjusted adults. The kids in Brick though, left to their own devices, create their own sub-cultures and hierarchies that result in kids mimicking antiquated and often dangerous modes of behavior.
In both of these earlier films the characters deal with this sense of abandonment by retreating into affectation. The characters talk and dress in atypical and anachronistic ways as a way to show their affiliation to a group, lifestyle, and/or philosophy. For Joe, his well-ironed suit, nice ties, slicked back hair, and blunderbuss are a symbol of power by way of its wearer being identified as belonging to a specific organization. To take any of that away from him is tantamount to killing him. Yet the props and costumes that these characters use to craft their identities are more often than not restrictive; preventing Brendan from caring for anyone other than the dead, blinding Stephen to the pain he’s caused his brother, and validating Joe’s violent actions as befitting the role of killer he’s chosen for himself.
Whereas contemporary American cinema is constantly mining comic books and video games in an effort to provide the audience with as much bread and circuses as they could want films like Brick, Brothers Bloom, and Looper will outlive a lot of those superhero franchises because the fictional worlds each film depicts is whole and complete, tapping into a shared cultural narrative. We all know what a noir is even without having seen a single Humphrey Bogart picture. We all know what happens when a group of criminals get together to plan something. And we are all well aware of the conceits of time travel stories. It’s part of our pop culture heritage and now so is Rian Johnson.
Filmography (feature films only)
The Brothers Bloom (2008)