A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.
Director Rian Johnson loves a good mystery. Throughout his diverse and eclectic career, the genre has been present in one form or another, from a teenager investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend to a young girl looking for answers about who she is in the middle of an intergalactic war, every character has a central enigma they are trying to solve.
Therefore, it was only a matter of time before Jonhson directed a full on murder mystery, also known as “whodunit” (a colloquial form of “Who [has] done it?”). The idea had actually been in the filmmaker’s mind since 2005, after the completion of his first feature length, the noir-detective story Brick. He intended to make it after 2012’s Looper, but his next project turned out to be a little bigger than he planned; Star Wars – The Last Jedi.
Reactions from fans of the franchise to that last one were, to say the least, divisive. Despite some online criticism, he was approached to create another Star Wars trilogy, yet felt the need to tackle something smaller before going back into the galaxy far, far away.
With the small time frame of a year, the filmmaker started pre-production on his next project; an homage to Agatha Christie novels, Alfred Hitchcock and great thriller classics such as Sleuth, The Last of Sheila, Deathtrap and Murder On the Orient Express.
The first one to be cast happened out of pure luck but would prove instrumental in getting the rest of movie off the ground. For the main eccentric detective Benoit Blanc, Johnson had written a list of his preferred actors but one was almost immediately discarded because of scheduling issues with a big franchise – Daniel Craig.
While the script was completed, work on the 25th James Bond movie had stalled after director Danny Boyle exited over the ever present “creative differences”. Craig was then contacted and within a few days, he became the first person to be cast in Johnson’s newest feature.
The prospect of an original screenplay by Johnson, mixed in with the appeal of The Last Jedi‘s $1.3 billion box office gross and Craig in a non-James Bond role quickly attracted the attention of producers and actors to join the film.
So it was that within a year, Rian Johnson wrote, cast, shot and edited his dream project: Knives Out.
Those thrillers listed above have one element in common: A group of fantastic actors. Johnson also wanted this to be reflected on Knives Out by getting a cast packed with talent, both old and new.
Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell form the family of suspects while Christopher Plummer’s Harlan Thrombey is the victim and there’s not a single bad performance here despite some characters falling close to cliche in some occasions.
Ana de Armas is the surprise standout as Marta, Harlan’s nurse, who unexpectedly turns into the protagonist of this sordid tale. In contrast to the generally terrible Thrombey family, Marta is a good natured and kind hearted individual who finds herself unexpectedly wrapped up in this mystery. Armas sparkly eyes, charming charisma and warm performance instantly bring audiences on her side while also delivering a much funnier side than expected.
Every great mystery has a determined, genius detective with an ostentatious name like Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot on the lookout for clues in order to bring those responsible to justice. Now we have Benoit Blanc.
It’s a shame that Daniel Craig’s comedic skills are lost in favor of macho roles and action films (though I certainly understand why) as the man can be damn funny when given the opportunity – for example, 2017’s Logan Lucky, or here.
It’s clear Craig has a blast playing with the private detective’s eccentricities, gleefully chewing his dialogue through an over the top and weirdly endearing southern accent. One hopes that more directors make use of the actor’s wide range of talents.
Despite being a genre that revolves around death, murder mysteries tend to be quite superficial. Many are period pieces, usually taking place in the years when novelists like Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle were writing their stories, romanticizing the subject and ensure a timeless feel.
So it’s nice that Knives Out has a contemporary setting, giving Johnson the opportunity to inject some sociopolitical commentary on illegal immigrants, class warfare and political hypocrisy without ringing false as it’s weaved into very fabric of the story and its characters, in particular, the protagonist Marta.
A Twisted Web…
Although all murder mysteries strive to subvert expectations to keep people from guessing, Knives Out is one of the few films that is actually successful in keeping you surprised, feeling fresh at every twist and turn.
It works because like a skilled cook riffing on his favorite recipes, Johnson chooses, changes and picks apart what he loves about this genre, playing with audience expectations to create a clever script that also happens to be a love letter for whodunits.
From the “dumbest car chase of all time” to ingenious role switching, Johnson has crafted a relentlessly entertaining thriller where the rug is pulled out from under you just when you believe you have the whole puzzle figured out.
“Practically Lives in a Clue Board”
The setting for the scene of the crime is the Thrombey Estate, named after the murdered crime novelist Harlan Thrombey and full of bizarre, eye catching artifacts – a chair made of knives which points directly to a person’s head being the main piece – and meticulously detailed to reflect the mind of its inhabitant.
Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Production Designer David Crank and Set Decorator David Schlesinger put a lot of thought and hard work into creating the story told by the house and it pays off with a spectacular location that becomes another character on its own right.
The director reunites with his cousin Nathan Johnson for their fourth collaboration and as expected from such a fan of murder mysteries like Rian, the music of Knives Out is modeled after that of the master of the genre, Bernard Hermann (Vertigo and Psycho) and of the films which inspired Johnson like Murder On The Orient Express and Sleuth.
Nathan Johnson creates a whimsical, playful sound which makes heavy use of strings and piano as an homage to the examples mentioned above while not falling into parody, resulting in a fun and killer (pun very much intended) score and one that’s worth a listen for fans of whodunits.
- Knives Out! (String Quartet in G Minor)
- No More Surprises
(going down the line)
As a matter of fact – Eat shit, hows
that? In fact eat shit, eat shit –
eat shit – Definitely eat shit. Eat
I’m not eating one iota of shit!
A donut hole in
the donut’s hole. But we must look a
little closer. And when we do, we
see that the donut hole has a hole in
its center – it is not a donut hole
at all but a smaller donut with its
own hole, and our donut is not whole
- It’s title was taken from the Radiohead song, “Knives Out”. Johnson, a big fan of the band, stated “Obviously, the movie has nothing to do with the song … That turn of phrase has always stuck in my head. And it just seemed like a great title for a murder mystery.”
- Johnson’s close friend and frequent collaborator Joseph Gordon Levitt has been present in all of his films. Here, Levitt’s voice can be heard through a tablet when one of the characters is watching a detective show.
- Rian Johnson released a commentary for audiences to enjoy while watching the movie in theaters. To hear it, go to https://knivesout.movie/#commentary