For the majority of his career, Rian Johnson was known for making standalone genre films. His indie directorial breakout Brick (2005) was a detective movie. The Brothers Bloom (2008) was a conman film. Looper (2012) was his take on the sci-fi genre. Yet while his filmography seems incredibly varied, his films tend to have a lot in common. On a practical level, Johnson has a tendency to work with the same cast and crew. Actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Noah Segan have appeared in some form or fashion in every Johnson movie, in addition to his recurring work with cinematographer Steve Yedlin, editor Bob Ducsay, and his cousin and composer Nathan Johnson.
While it may be what seems flashiest about his films, genre has always been merely a tool for Johnson to explore deeper themes. When viewing his films on the surface, they deliver entertaining and innovative twists on classic tropes, but they utilize genre constructs to go deeper on sociopolitical and psychological themes. For example, Brick utilized the style of film noir to reexamine the emotional experience of being in high school.
When Rian Johnson got the opportunity to join one of the biggest movie franchises of all time and direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), his style famously tested the fandom. While Star Wars has always been a political franchise, Johnson brought it to the forefront in his installment. Though many disliked the Canto Bight storyline for its politics, it shouldn’t have surprised fans or those familiar with Johnson’s career. However, the film put a global spotlight on the director’s personal values and how he employs them in his films.
Beyond his work with genre, The Last Jedi also posed a new challenge for the director: how to tell an interconnected story. Prior to his work with Star Wars, all of his work had been standalone outside of directing a few episodes of Breaking Bad and Terriers. Yet, writing and directing the middle chapter of a massive trilogy was an arguably different challenge.
While Star Wars fans may still be divided on the legacy of The Last Jedi, no one expected the massive success of Johnson’s follow-up. Knives Out (2019), Johnson’s take on and loving homage to the classic Agatha Christie mystery, was originally conceived as another standalone genre piece — the Rian Johnson whodunnit. Of course, the film was hugely popular, grossing over $312 million worldwide, all the more impressive for an original property. The film’s indisputable success at the box office, and with fans, led to Johnson’s massive deal to make two sequels with Netflix for nearly half a billion dollars.
In his nearly 20-year film career, Rian Johnson has gone from an indie darling who shot his debut feature at his former high school in Texas to a bankable director with multiple deals in the works. Glass Onion (2022) has firmly cemented Johnson as a blockbuster creative force in Hollywood. Regardless of what certain segments of the internet may have to say, it’s clear Johnson is here to stay.
Netflix has greenlit at least one more film beyond Glass Onion, but time will tell if more Benoit Blanc stories are on the way. In addition to the Knives Out trilogy, Johnson is working on his first original television series, Poker Face starring Natasha Lyonne, which is set to premiere on Peacock in January 2023. Additionally, his long-rumored standalone Star Wars trilogy is allegedly still in the works. Both of these projects will show how far Johnson has come with his ability to tell interconnected stories.
This latter shift in the career of Rian Johnson also signals a growth in his storytelling from a diversity perspective. His earlier films primarily centered on young white men who were all similar kinds of characters, an understandable journey for a young filmmaker. However, part of the success of Knives Out came from the audience’s surprise that the true star was not global superstar Daniel Craig as hilariously southern detective Benoit Blanc, but Ana de Armas’ Marta, the maid caught in the center of the mystery. Glass Onion doubles down on this storytelling tactic, utilizing Janelle Monae in an even more delightful and moving way.
It’s no surprise that Johnson’s Knives Out franchise is his most acclaimed body of work yet. Both films were nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and Knives Out also garnered an Academy Award and BAFTA nomination for Best Screenplay. By weaving his values and politics into the machinations of the plot and story, Johnson’s films have grown with him, building an endlessly smart and heartfelt body of work that fans will be able to puzzle through — and unlocking countless exciting opportunities for the writer-director-producer for years to come.