Maybe it’s easy to take for granted these days just how subversive Psycho was in 1960. Its first-act twist — Marion Crane, our ostensible hero, is brutally stabbed by an unseen killer while in the shower — is a radical gesture, proof that director Alfred Hitchcock didn’t give a damn about the audience’s expectations or even narrative convention.
Now, I’m not saying that Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s director, Rian Johnson, compares to Alfred Hitchcock. But Johnson makes a key choice in telling the story of The Last Jedi that’s striking in the same way that the shower scene in Psycho is. A key moment in the latest Star Wars film is just as disorienting, bucking the franchise’s deeply rooted convention to create The Last Jedi’s most tense, exciting and unforgettable moment.
[Here’s your spoiler warning. Go see The Last Jedi, and then come back here. We’ll wait.]
Halfway through The Last Jedi’s very lengthy runtime, Kylo Ren presents Rey, his captive, to his master, Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke’s an intimidating being, even more so than the unhinged Kylo Ren: He’s not human; he’s physically imposing; he’s the Supreme Leader, after all. Without her lightsaber and with just vengeful Kylo Ren alongside her, Rey looks pretty much doomed while facing down Snoke.
The scene feels familiar, like an homage to Empire Strikes Back: Rey will lose her first battle against the trilogy’s impossible villain. She’ll probably come out of this one with at least both hands, I thought to myself, holding my breath; but she won’t come out of it totally unscathed.
But then Johnson does something that, in hindsight, maybe isn’t all that surprising. Rey and Kylo Ren’s relationship has become a cornerstone of the new trilogy — they went through a lot together in The Force Awakens, finding something recognizable in each other. Even though he’s the one who’s offered Rey up to Snoke, Kylo Ren is not about to let his fellow Force-sensitive orphan (by choice or not) go this easily.
And then we get my absolute favorite shot in the film: With Kylo Ren and Rey in the foreground, and Snoke unfocused in the back, a well-placed lightsaber cuts Snoke right in half.
Johnson never refocuses the camera. He doesn’t immediately cut away to Snoke’s lifeless body, now divided in halfway. Instead, we stay with Rey — our hero — and Kylo Ren — who, we’ll soon find out, is our true villain — as the pair fights off a swath of Snoke’s royal guards. It’s a beautiful, seamless transition. My eyes were wide and unblinking with awe.
This is not The Last Jedi’s grand finale. Oh no; the film keeps going, and going, and going. Say what you will about how much longer it goes on for, but for me, the film’s true climax happens here. The villain I thought would last until Episode 9 was dead. Kylo Ren, Han Solo’s murderer, had saved Rey from an easy demise. The pair were now united in some unbreakable and unspoken way, even as the rest of the film makes sure to add more shades of gray into that bond.
Johnson rewrites the standard Star Wars trilogy setup in just a swift, beautifully shot scene. Rey gets another chance to prove herself, and Kylo Ren assumes his true position as the Supreme Leader. He’s a villain even more unpredictable than his grandfather, Darth Vader, and Rey is a hero whose odds are even more greatly stacked against her than her mentor and counterpart, Luke Skywalker.
Of course it had to be this way. But it took Rian Johnson shockingly twisting the knife, or turning on the lightsaber, halfway through the film to prove it.