movies

Knives Out Will Kill You

Cracking the mystery of why Rian Johnson followed up Star Wars with a whodunit.

Rian Johnson on set with Christopher Plummer as the murdered mystery writer. Photo: Claire Folger/Courtesy of Lionsgate/© 2018 MRC II Distribution Company L.P. All rights reserved.
Rian Johnson on set with Christopher Plummer as the murdered mystery writer. Photo: Claire Folger/Courtesy of Lionsgate/© 2018 MRC II Distribution Company L.P. All rights reserved.

The madcap drawing-room whodunit from writer-director Rian Johnson, Knives Out, is notable first and foremost for its extreme improbability. Not in its story line — though the plot is reliably packed with hairpin turns and reversals — but rather for the unlikelihood of the film’s existing at all. It’s an original take on an anachronism: the star-studded sleuth film. When Johnson finished a first draft of Knives, an idea that had been germinating for a decade, and showed it to some of his friends, they were skeptical. “A few reactions were ‘We like this kind of movie, but why do you want to do this?’ That did give me pause,” he says. “But I felt like I knew deep down inside why I wanted to do it.”

Johnson’s new film isn’t the only recent whodunit — Kenneth Branagh cast himself as Hercule Poirot in a 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express, and it grossed over $300 million worldwide. But Orient Express is a famous piece of intellectual property from a best-selling author and had been previously adapted for the screen, TV, radio, and the stage. Knives Out is the opposite. It’s original, offbeat, carefully observed, aimed squarely at adults, and, while funny, not at all a send-up like, say, Murder by Death. It’s also overtly political in content, cleverly investigating our divisive current moment. In short, Knives Out is the kind of film that exhibits “the unifying vision of an individual artist,” as Martin Scorsese put it in a recent New York Times op-ed about the kinds of movies he feels are disappearing from Hollywood. What modern Hollywood wants instead are franchise films like Star Wars: The Last Jedias it happens, the last film Johnson directed, which goes a long way toward explaining how he managed to marshal the forces to get this idiosyncratic movie made.

Johnson didn’t worry that he was bucking a trend in Hollywood. “Maybe I am completely oblivious, and all the sky-is-falling predictions will turn out to be right,” he says of the state of the studios’ appetite for original films, “but there’s great, fun stuff being made for adults all year long. You’ve just got to go out and see it. I love big franchise stuff too — obviously — but I feel like it’s still very possible to make this.” And to hear Johnson, who’s 45, tell it, there’s not much difference creatively between Knives Out, reportedly budgeted at $40 million, and Jedi, reportedly budgeted at Whatever It Takes.

“At the end of the day, the thing at every step that matters about them is the same,” he says, when I meet him the day after Knives Out’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. He has been cloistered in a hotel suite for the day, answering questions about the movie’s largely exuberant reception and looking as if he hasn’t quite recovered from the previous night’s festivities. “At the writing stage, you’re trying to tell a good story,” he says. “When you’re on set, no matter how big the array of trucks is or how nice the catering is, you’re essentially always dealing with a camera and a couple of actors and trying to make a scene work.” There are definitely certain attendant weirdnesses to making a Star Wars film. “There’s a lot more people with a lot more specificity,” he says of his crew on The Last Jedi. “There’s the people who all they do is sew feathers into Porgs. But the reason it’s scaled up like that is the demands of the production. So it’s not like you’re on the set of Knives Out saying, ‘Where the fuck are my Porg feathers?!”

Prior to Jedi, Johnson had built a reputation as an artisanal writer-director based on three quirky, accomplished films, each of which feels like a throwback to an era of cinema that never quite existed. Remember when Hollywood was crazy for noir films set in high schools? No? Yet Johnson’s debut, Brick (2005), a hard-boiled mystery set at a sun-bleached California high school, seemed totally natural, even inevitable. His follow-up, The Brothers Bloom, was a zany con-man caper starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel Weisz that could be the answer to the question “What if The Sting starred the Three Stooges?” His third film, Looper, zagged again, telling a sleek tale of cynical, time-traveling hit men that draws more from Macbeth and Witness than from Terminator, all while channeling the existential cool of the French New Wave.

Knives Out follows a spoiled, oddball family whose patriarch, the hugely successful and crotchety mystery writer Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plummer), has just been murdered. The family — an uptight patrician daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her ne’er-do-well husband (Don Johnson); their rakish jackass son (Chris Evans); a feckless heir charged with custody of the literary empire (Michael Shannon); a daughter-in-law who’s a dippy wellness guru (Toni Colette) — assembles in a large Victorian house full of spooky props to recall the events of Harlan’s birthday party, held on the night he died. Everyone had a motive, of course (the inheritance), and as required, a supersleuth appears: Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, chewing through a juicy southern drawl like a bloodhound working a rubber toy.

As a kid growing up in San Clemente, California, where Johnson lived from the sixth grade on (the high school in Brick is the same one he went to), he had plenty of time to fall in love with whodunits, along with all kinds of genres: science fiction, thriller, classic Hollywood, noir, even the movie musical. (He’s a big musical fan who sneaks to New York to see notable Broadway shows, and he’s an avowed devotee of the Norman Jewison Jesus Christ Superstar.)

This film is a whodunit but one that relies less on who than on why. “I fundamentally agree with Hitchcock’s assessment of the whodunit,” says Johnson. “If it’s just a big buildup to one big surprise at the end — if the pleasure of the film is ‘Oh my God, I never could have guessed that’ — that’s one cheap coin at the end of a very long ride.” He has designed the reveal to surprise you, but most of the film’s pleasures lie in the exacting character portraits he lays out along the way.

After Looper, Johnson had intended this Agatha Christie–esque project to be his next film. But he put it aside to make The Last Jedi, which came out in 2017. Returning to the idea, he wrote the script over the first six months of 2018, “which is incredibly quickly for me,” he says. He wanted Craig to star — the actor being both a highly marketable international commodity (i.e., James Bond) and a performer who’s willing, even eager, to venture outside his comfort zone (e.g., Logan Lucky) — but Craig wasn’t available, until suddenly he was. “The James Bond movie was pushed back a few months, so we had a little window,” says Johnson. “And we jumped on it.”

The spur-of-the-moment nature of Knives Out made pulling together the all-star cast easier: “It was not like going to a bunch of actors and saying, ‘Hey, we’re putting this together, we’re kind of aiming for fall in a year from now.’ It was literally ‘Are you available right now? Do you want to come up to Boston and have some fun?’ ” Assembling the cast, “I had to make very clear to everybody that we’re not doing Clue,” Johnson says. “It’s not an arch parody. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be funny, but the goal here is to do something that has the actual pleasures of the genre.” As for his overall approach to reviving it, “You have to tap, in the purest way you can, into what you love about the stuff you love” — which is as close as he might come to an artistic manifesto.

Knives Out debuted in September to an eager response, and since then Johnson has been active on Twitter dropping calibrated hints and promoting new trailers. If you know his history with the platform, it’s a little surprising to see him still there. Two stars of The Last Jedi, Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran, quit social media because of all the abuse they endured from trolls, and Johnson has been the target of angry Star Wars fans who declare his contribution to be borderline sacrilegious. “I get leagues more positive stuff from Twitter than negative stuff,” he says about his fan interactions online. “And in terms of experiencing some of the darker stuff, anyone who’s online in 2019 who does anything — it’s just part of the culture now.” As for that darker stuff, if you Google “Rian Johnson petition,” you’ll find the following at change.org: “Fire Rian Johnson from writing and directing the new Star Wars trilogy”; a petition “demanding a remake of episode 8”; and a petition that simply aims, by some leverage as yet unclear, to force Johnson “to admit that The Last Jedi is awful.”

Other creators who’ve tangled with fans online tend either to resort to blanket exoneration (#NotAllFans) or to claim a disingenuous naïveté. (Online? What is this “online”?) But Johnson is thoughtful about the whole episode, has been complimentary to the fan base as a whole, and sounds kind of like you or I might sound if thousands of strangers suddenly decided to tell us loudly and publicly that we’d taken a dump on their childhoods. “When I was on social media in the beginning, I was like, Oh my God, I’m plugging into the world — this is what the whole world is thinking!,” he says. “But the more you’re on it, the more you start to see patterns of how it behaves as an organism and the more predictable those patterns become. I think it’s been a very healthy thing for me to unplug from the notion that I’m putting my ear to the earth and hearing the sound of the world when I check my Twitter feed. Instead, I’m thinking, No, I’m getting a very specific slice of a very specific culture.

He’s still in talks to write and direct three (!) more Star Wars films, and he recently started a new production company, T-Street, with his longtime producer Ram Bergman. But perhaps what’s most exciting about Johnson right now — and, I suspect, what’s most exciting to Johnson right now — is that he has accomplished the exact thing that so many filmmakers promise to do when they’re drawn into the gravitational pull of a mega-franchise but that so few actually pull off: He has used the bump in profile and clout from Star Wars to get back to doing exactly what he wants, such as making a drawing-room whodunit. In other words, he’ll continue to create the kind of unlikely films that got people so enthusiastic about him in the first place.

When we meet in Toronto, reaction to the premiere is still rolling in, so I decide to read him some tweets. He visibly winces at this stuntlike proposition — less, I imagine, at the corniness of it (though partly at the corniness of it) and more because he’s not inclined to publicly bathe in praise. I start with a typical one about Knives Out: “Come for the grand cast, stay for a classical whodunit … Hilarity and sheer ingenuity … Goodness, what a delight.”

“I’ll take that,” he says, warming to the exercise. “After the past few years, this feels good.”

*This article appears in the November 11, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Why Did Rian Johnson Follow Star Wars With a Whodunit?