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Films by Writer/Director Rian Johnson

Updated on January 21, 2013

Rian Johnson is a Maryland-born writer and director. His third major feature, Looper, opened wide in theaters September 28th, 2012. For those of you who have yet to see Looper (and for those who have!), here is a brief retrospective on Johnson’s work.

Johnson’s three full-length films are known for their clever, stylized dialogue and visual flair. He frequently works with the same people both in front of and behind the camera and writes all the films he has directed so far.

Brick, written and directed by Rian Johnson.
Brick, written and directed by Rian Johnson. | Source


Johnson’s first full-length film, made for less than $50,000, was a twist on two familiar genres: the high school flick and the film noir. Brick stars a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye, the gumshoe outcast who gets entwined in a vast, seedy conspiracy of murder and drug dealing. When his ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin) begs for his help, then suddenly disappears, Brendan doesn’t set out to solve some big mystery—he just wants to make sure she’s alright. Almost against his will, he gets sucked deeper and deeper into the shady underground of drugs, muscle, and femmes fatale.

Oh, did I mention it also takes place in a high school?

In high school, every emotion is heightened and every experience intensified. What better way to express that angst and confusion than with the stylized trappings of film noir? Brick invents its own slang, but sells it 110%. Brendan explains to the Assistant Principal that he’s not a snitch: “I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.” When talking about legends of a local drug dealer called the Pin, Brendan’s best friend Brain (Matt O’Leary) concludes that though everyone blames deals on him, “I bet you, if you got every rat in town together and said "Show your hands" if any of them've actually seen The Pin, you'd get a crowd of full pockets.”

The rat-a-tat dialogue may rub some viewers the wrong way, but for those willing to suspend their disbelief, it’s a very fun film.

Brick stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, Emilie de Ravin as Emily, Nora Zehetner as Laura, Noah Fleiss as Tugger, Lukas Haas as The Pin, Meagan Goode as Kara, Matt O’Leary as The Brain, Noah Segan as Dode, and Richard Roundtree as Assistant V.P. Trueman.

Writer and Director Rian Johnson’s cousin Nathan Johnson provides the creepy, memorable score for this and Rian's other two films.

Brick was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision (Dramatic) and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Poster for The Brothers Bloom, featuring Mark Ruffalo as Stephen, Rachel Weisz as Penelope, Adrien Brody as Bloom, and Rinko Kikuchi as Bang Bang.
Poster for The Brothers Bloom, featuring Mark Ruffalo as Stephen, Rachel Weisz as Penelope, Adrien Brody as Bloom, and Rinko Kikuchi as Bang Bang. | Source

The Brothers Bloom

After the cult success of Brick, Johnson had a bit more esteem—and a bit more money to work with. His next project, The Brothers Bloom, attracted Oscar-nominated (and winning) actors Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and Rachel Weisz.

Brothers Stephen (Ruffalo) and Bloom (Brody) are lifelong conmen and very good at what they do. Stephen writes and orchestrates the cons while Bloom gets in good with the marks. After years in the game, however, Bloom is ready to be out. He doesn’t want to play Stephen’s characters anymore—he just wants “an unwritten life.”

However, Stephen ropes him into one last con. The mark? Eccentric heiress and “hobby collector” Penelope (Weisz). The perfect con, says Stephen, is one where everyone involved gets just what they wanted. Penelope proves more than up to the task the brothers provide for her, and she seems to enjoy every step of the way.

The Brothers Bloom pulls strong performances from its leads—especially Weisz, the hands-down highlight of the film—but doesn’t quite hit the levels of Brick and Looper. It’s a fun movie with more truth than one would expect from a movie about cons, but its ending is a little convoluted and that keeps the film from reaching the emotional heights it could.

I enjoyed The Brothers Bloom well enough, but when I want a good con movie I’ll go back to my old favorite, The Sting.

The Brothers Bloom stars Mark Ruffalo as Stephen, Adrien Brody as Bloom, Rachei Weisz as Penelope, Rinko Kikuchi as Bang Bang, Robbie Coltrane as the Curator, Maximilian Schnell as Diamond Dog, and Ricky Jay as the Narrator. It features Brick stars Noah Segan and Nora Zehetner in supporting roles and even features a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Movie poster for Looper, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as Joe.
Movie poster for Looper, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as Joe. | Source


Looper, Johnson’s newest film, is currently in theaters and absolutely worth seeking out. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a specialized assassin with a simple task: clean up the future mob’s mess. Because body identification is so sophisticated in Looper’s future, the mob sends their targets back in time to be made to disappear.

When suddenly confronted with killing himself, thirty years senior (played by Bruce Willis), Joe blinks—and misses his opportunity. (Gosh, I wonder what it would be like for Bruce Willis to meet his younger self?)The resulting action film displays Johnson’s distinct vision and clever dialogue while at its best making the viewer really consider the questions and themes it presents.

In viewing it, I was reminded of Inception—not that the stories at the heart of each film are very similar, but that they’re both so different from anything else out there. Looper, in my opinion, does a better job of dealing with exposition. It also undoubtedly earns its R rating, which may turn some potential viewers away.

For a longer (non-spoilery) review of Looper, please read here.

Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, Bruce Willis as Old Joe, Emily Blunt as Sara, Paul Dano as Seth, Jeff Daniels as Abe, Piper Perabo as Suzie, Pierce Gagnon as Cid, Noah Segan as Kid Blue, and Garret Dillahunt as Jesse.


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