Rian Johnson’s newest film Knives Out is a murder mystery with colourful characters
FILMMAKER Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) assembles an all-star cast ― Daniel Craig, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and LaKeith Stanfield ― in an intelligent whodunit about a famed southern detective who joins forces with local police to investigate a group of eccentric suspects following the murder of a wealthy crime novelist.
On the morning after his 85th birthday party, wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his estate.
Inquisitive and debonair Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) is enlisted to investigate the case.
Everyone is a suspect and, as the reading of the will draws closer and the investigation heats up, Harlan’s money-grubbing family is revealed to be far more conniving than they first appear.
From Harlan’s dysfunctional family to his devoted staff, Blanc sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the former’s untimely death.
When Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s South American caregiver, finds herself entangled in the mystery, it becomes clear that no secrets are safe within the household ― not even her own.
A two-time TIFF alum, director Johnson returns with a propulsive mystery, mixing elements of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie.
Exercising his sharp-witted ear for dialogue, Johnson is in top form as a writer here, serving up hilarious and eloquent material for an impeccable cast.
A master in blending genres, and with a keen eye for detail, he employs unexpected cinematic tropes to keep viewers on their toes as the story weasels its way through twists and turns to a shocking conclusion.
Johnson pierces through this timeless scenario with a lacerating wit and a razor-sharp take on 21st Century social mores and family life. He re-envisions the darkly fun-loving whodunnit by doing it in tune with our tumultuous times.
It all starts with a stellar, multi-generational troupe of actors, each having a ball taking their hugely unpredictable and psychologically volatile characters straight to the edge.
This ensemble weaves a backstory of conflicted relationships and concealed motivations with more spiralling twists than a corkscrew.
“I wanted this to be a really fun, modern movie full of clues and complications and also family dynamics,” explained Johnson in a recent interview.
At the same time, Johnson set out to follow a classic tradition, that of exploring shifting social relations from within the maze of a murder mystery.
He noted that the master of the whodunit was doing it all along. “Agatha Christie’s stories weren’t messagey, but if you look at her characters, they were very much about British society at the time,” Johnson said.
“I think that tends to get lost today when you see all those butlers and colonels. You forget that at the time those were very fresh references to the different strata of the society. So, for me, the chance to use this genre to look at contemporary America and the types of people we’re familiar with right now was exciting.”
Ram Bergman, who has produced every Johnson film since his career began, knew Knives Out would have a very different texture from classical Christie.
“This is what Rian does, he subverts familiar genres and makes them fresh,” said Bergman. “You start out thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this kind of movie before, I know how they work’, but then you’re taken aback because you’re so invested in these characters ― and the movie becomes a much deeper, wilder ride than you were anticipating.”
For Collette, joining the star-studded ensemble was a ride unlike any other.
“What I love is that you can sense Rian tipping his hat to the entire history of murder mystery films while bringing a brand-new energy to the form. Knives Out feels incredibly contemporary because it’s so fast-moving, complex and tightly woven,” she said. “Rian puts the characters on firm ground ― then he pulls that ground away from them, so you never know where the story is going.”
Meanwhile, Curtis plays Harlan’s eldest daughter Linda. From being the quintessential “Scream Queen” of contemporary horror to a Golden Globe winner for James Cameron’s True Lies, Curtis’ work has run the gamut from light comedy to serious drama, but Knives Out has the best of both worlds. “What drew me is simply that it felt smart, clever and fun,” she said.
“It’s a perfect movie for the whole family because there are characters from every generation. I think it’s one of those movies that will be really fun to see with your own dysfunctional family,” said Curtis.
For Evans, who plays Ransom, the black sheep of the Thrombey clan, it was a riveting experience to be in the room in scenes featuring the whole family and all their tricky dynamics. “When this family gets together, like a lot of families, everyone just loses their mind a little bit, and sparks fly,” Evans said. “And with these actors, nothing was more exciting than watching the wheels fall off.”
Johnson noted that the plotting alone posed a major challenge, since he wanted viewers to have the thrill of playing detective themselves, and to always be on their toes. “When you have a labyrinth of so many different characters, and so many different motives and all these twists and turns, even if you have the basic structure of it down, there’s a lot of math that you still have to do,” he said. “But the key is making all those mechanics invisible to the viewers, so they’re just on this fun ride.”
Yet, he also aimed to employ the whodunit structure to engage viewers in a wealth of human drama. “I wanted to have my cake and eat it too,” explained Johnson. “I wanted the pleasures of the questioning at the beginning, of the eccentric detective, of the big scene at the end where the whole thing gets laid out ― all the stuff I love about mysteries ― but also to use the mechanics of a thriller to pull you into all that’s really going on in this family.”
As he got deeper into the characters, Johnson said he could not help but draw on his own sizable family, giving the whodunit a personal twist. “I’m very close to my family and they’re not terrible like this family at all,” he said. “But having grown up in a big family, I’m very familiar with all the complex dynamics and dysfunctions ― and of course that can become fertile ground for both humour and drama.”
While the Thrombey family each had to have their own distinct foibles and flaws, the crux of the casting was finding the film’s one-of-kind detective. Johnson knew he needed a no-holds-barred performance. “Whether it’s Poirot, Columbo, Mrs Marple or whoever, one of the big unifying elements among movie detectives is that there is always something about them that makes you not quite take them seriously. With Benoit Blanc, I tried to write a fun, flawed character that I genuinely loved and then it was really Daniel Craig who brought all this wonderful warmth to him.”
Craig was anything but an obvious choice. After all, he is best known as a member of the small, legendary club of Agents 007, and renowned for his gritty intensity. But with Blanc, he emerged in a whole new incarnation as a genteel, unhurried Southern gumshoe who nevertheless set each member of the Thrombey family so off-balance that the pieces began to fall.
For Craig, the challenge of embodying such an unlikely role was irresistible. Starting by modelling Blanc’s Tennessee drawl after real-life Southern historian Shelby Foote, he then submerged himself in the history of movie detectives. “I grew up on Agatha Christie movies, and I also love Sleuth with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, these sorts of chamber pieces where everything unfolds all in one location,” he said. “But Rian brings a fresh take and an edge that feels very modern and is a lot of fun.”
Johnson unleashed his characters into a house Harlan stuffed to the gills with macabre wonders as his personal playground. Along with every other element in the film, from performance to photography, the aim was to keep the viewers’ experience off kilter.
To achieve this, Johnson brought aboard production designer David Crank, known for his memorably detailed work with Paul Thomas Anderson on such films as The Master. Recalled Crank: “The first thing that Rian and I talked about is that the house should be an outward mirror of the kind of world Harlan liked to create in his books, so it’s all a little bit twisted.”
Crank watched hour after hour of classic whodunits. Then, he went in search of a one-of-a-kind house that could be a contemporary character in its own right, a house that would pay homage to the genre yet be entirely responsive to Johnson’s unmistakably 2019 characters. He found the perfect place just outside Boston. Built in the 1890s in the lavish Gothic Revival architectural style, it was a true family home that had never changed hands. With its medieval castle-inspired touches and dagger-like spires, the house inspired inventiveness.
For Johnson, immersion was the name of the game. He was thrilled that his cast and crew were as devoted to honing the finer details of the mystery as he was. It all became part of building the aura of deep doubt and suspense that ensnared, then unravelled, the Thrombeys. Johnson said: “Even as we were editing, I was still picking out little things hidden in the film - so I think it will all be lots of fun for viewers.”
Irreverent, intelligent, and, most importantly, pure fun from beginning to end, Knives Out which will hit cinemas on Nov 27 is a modern popcorn whodunit of the highest order. Courtesy of TGV Pictures
Who killed Harlan?
HARLAN Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) built his fortune on the mystery novels he wrote, so he is a man of great imagination, but his family is not quite as bright.
There is business-minded daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), husband Richard (Don Johnson), and their mean, terrible son Ransom (Chris Evans).
There is Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs the family publishing company, and Joni (Toni Colette), the widowed daughter-in-law, who enthusiastically shows how compassionate she is towards people the rest of the family sniffs at, but also is happy to take the family’s money.
Two more grandkids — priggish Jacob (Jaeden Martell) and self-righteous Meg (Katherine Langford) round out the pack.
Harlan died under mysterious circumstances, which only his longtime nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) knows anything about, and a trio of men arrive to investigate. Two police detectives (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and one private detective (Daniel Craig, sporting, as one character puts it, a Foghorn Leghorn accent). They try to dig into the story but it keeps slipping out of their grasp.
It is always nice to see Craig spring into antic electricity outside the confines of his brooding James Bond. And as for Chris Evans, his post-Captain America life seems to suit him nicely.
The official trailer for Knives Out is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8ubqSyCDmg