‘Knives Out’: A Devilishly Fun Murder-Mystery Skewering the Left and Right
Filmmaker Rian Johnson (“The Last Jedi”) opens up to Melissa Leon about his star-studded whodunit, boasting riotous turns from the men most known as James Bond and Captain America.
The key to unlocking any cinematic mystery worth chewing on—like, say, how Rian Johnson crafted an old-school, Agatha Christie-indebted whodunit as crisp and crowd-pleasing yet politically urgent as Knives Out—is to first assess what we do and don’t know.
First, there is how the writer-director (of Brick, Looper, and most recently before this, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) assembled his rogue’s gallery of suspects. The sudden death of a wealthy family patriarch, a crime novelist named Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), draws suspicion to his money-leeching throng of sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, and in-laws. Each represents an archetype of contemporary society; that’s how Christie did it in her day, tempting her audience’s biased suspicions. And it’s one way Knives Out pays earnest homage to the super-sleuth Hercule Poirot yarns Johnson grew up admiring.
“I didn’t just want to give everybody cellphones and have it be the same tropes from murder mysteries, like Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum,” Johnson tells The Daily Beast. Instead, the Thrombeys are a tableau of privilege: all white, wealthy, with political loyalties littered across the red-blue spectrum—though such differences to them are more abstract than pressing. The silhouettes of their personalities are meant to feel familiar from life. It’s through acquainting us with them that Johnson sets in motion a genuine, twisting whodunit, as much about a murder as it is about America in 2019.
Was it the spoiled frat-jerk-bro (played by Captain America himself, Chris Evans) who slashed his grandfather’s throat? He’s the type to dismiss Harlan’s young live-in nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas) as “the help”—and he was last heard in a heated argument with his granddad by the family’s resident “alt-right internet troll,” the preppy teenager Jacob (Jaeden Martell). Maybe the murderer is Don Johnson’s snide trophy husband Richard, who uses Marta as a live prop as he pontificates about her immigration status and “the right way” to enter the U.S. Walt (Michael Shannon) is the sort to back him up on that point when he isn’t otherwise curdling with rage at his father for refusing him the keys to a multimillion-dollar publishing empire.
Or should we look to one of the family’s more left-leaning offspring? Toni Collette’s Gwyneth-adjacent lifestyle influencer, Joni, arrives at Harlan’s Victorian mansion to ask for more financial handouts. She yells righteously about babies in cages at her in-laws, though her relationship with the issue is shallow. She and her “social justice warrior” daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) claim to embrace Marta as “part of the family,” promising they’ll “take care” of her in the wake of Harlan’s death. Yet when the balance of power unexpectedly tips in Marta’s favor, both mom and daughter revert to the same self-serving interests as their brazenly racist relatives. So much for the illusion of moral superiority.
What unfolds is a brutally-sharp critique of rich conservatives and liberals’ solipsistic tendencies. The Thrombeys’ entitlement, their delusions of self-made success, and their blithe disinterest in the realities of the working class—all of it stems from the supreme commonality that unites them across the aisle: money. (That, and a shaky grasp of geography. Not a single Thrombey can accurately remember where Marta’s family is actually from, with their offhanded guesses ranging from Ecuador to Paraguay to Brazil and beyond.) To pen such scathing portraits, Johnson had to confront his own privileges and limits as someone who is, admittedly, “basically a Hollywood liberal.”
“I felt especially if I’m going to be exposing all these different characters, I need to use each of them to examine what I see as kind of a weakness in myself,” the filmmaker explains. The Thrombeys’ selfishness and self-mythologizing, as he sees it, can be read as outsized symptoms of “that very basic human thing of wanting to hold on to what you’ve managed to get.” That’s a primal impulse. “That’s something I can relate to,” Johnson says.
Meg and Joni’s hypocrisy in leveraging their privilege against Marta goes “beyond condescension—it’s again that very human thing of ‘I can be gracious when it’s on my terms,’ and ‘I can be generous as long as it doesn’t actually take anything away from me,’” he explains. Writing that into a script involved “investigating myself and really thinking, how deep do my good intentions go? If the rubber really hit the road, what would I do?” Johnson hopes Knives Out amounts to an examination of “human failure, and not just wagging our finger at the people whose politics we don’t agree with.”
In that way, Knives Out reflects a timely theme in some of the year’s boldest movies. It joins Bong Joon-ho’s masterful Parasite and the bloody horror-comedy Ready Or Not in its thrill-ride vision of a class war where the recourse for inequality is to (metaphorically) eat the rich. And it has loopier, more bizarre fun than any while doing it.
Johnson cast against type for two of his script’s most outrageous characters: as Ransom Thrombey, a sneering, walking embodiment of white male rage, he cast Evans, Hollywood’s human approximation of a golden retriever. (Knives Out: come for the class war, stay to see Captain America utter “eat shit” five times fast.) And for his Poirot analogue, the detective tasked with solving the case of Harlan Thrombey’s murder, Johnson turned to Daniel Craig. The British actor best known as James Bond thunders out every line in a thick-as-molasses Southern accent that lands somewhere between Foghorn Leghorn and Colonel Sanders—as a character named Benoit Blanc, no less. “That’s his natural accent! People don’t realize,” Johnson deadpans. “He was so relieved to be able to finally speak in his native Mississippi accent.”
“I figured it’d be fun to make him a fish out of water in New England,” he adds, a bit more straight-faced. “Daniel and I did a lot of discussing like, what should it be? I wanted it to be sonorous. I wanted it to be pleasant to listen to. So I gave him a reference of the historian Shelby Foote, who is in Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary and has a bit of that Mississippi accent, this very honeyed drawl.”
The “last of the gentleman sleuths,” Blanc agonizes over what missing clues might fill “the hole at the center of this donut” and the “hole in the middle of the donut hole,” in an uproarious monologue that Johnson almost cut from the script. He feared it’d be too silly, even by Blanc’s cartoonish standards, until Craig tried it out loud. “I remember watching him do that and just feeling like, oh my God, I think we have a movie,” he laughs.
Unraveling a good murder-mystery should feel like a roller coaster, with dips, crescendoes, and unrelenting momentum. Johnson learned that as a kid in California watching Christie adaptations like Death on the Nile (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982), both featuring Peter Ustinov as his favorite version of Poirot. “I remember sitting down and watching with my family these big entertainments with all-star casts and really feeling like this is the most fun type of movie in the world,” he recalls. He set out to merge Christie’s tradition of drawing-room whodunits with a Hitchcockian thriller’s suspense, “really aiming to recapture the fun of those movies.”
Constructing a puzzle-box whodunit is a task Johnson proved uniquely suited to. “It has something in common with time-travel movies,” he explains. “You’re always working on multiple timelines. The present is always investigating the past. And you’re always dipping back into the past from different perspectives, sometimes to the exact same moment and seeing it play different ways, depending on who’s talking.”
Flashbacks are a recurring tool in Johnson’s work, often used to encourage his characters (and his viewers) to reassess what they think they know. You see it in his ’40s-style noir set in a modern-day high school, Brick (2006), as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character solves the murder of a girl he loved. In The Brothers Bloom (2008), a con man revisits memories of his childhood as his sense of what is real unravels. Luke Skywalker’s flawed perspective of a painful memory proves crucial in 2017’s The Last Jedi. And in Johnson’s 2012 time-travel epic Looper, the past and present are actively at odds, each trying to outwit the other.
It’s the perfect résumé for a Rashomon-like treatment of the murder-mystery genre. “Film language is uniquely suited to that in a way that I think it’s even more difficult to do with literature on the page,” Johnson says. But how to remember the names on every branch of the Thrombey’s sprawling family tree? “I named them all after ’70s rock stars,” Johnson laughs. “Joni is Joni Mitchell and her ex-husband is Neil, so Neil Young. Linda and Richard are Linda and Richard Thompson. Walt and his wife Donna are Walter Beckett and Donald Fagen from Steely Dan. I came up with a little code.”
For now, the writer-director has an inkling of what story he might tell next—and which he likely won’t. Lucasfilm announced in 2017 that Johnson would helm a new Star Wars trilogy set beyond the Skywalker saga. He’s still enthusiastic about the endless-blue-sky potential of a new trilogy. But he’s in the dark about when it might go into production.
“I’m still in contact with those guys, but there’s no news on that front,” he says. In the meantime, he’s enjoying “just being a Star Wars fan again, watching the trailer with everybody else, waiting for Christmas” and the release of director J.J. Abrams’ conclusion to the Skywalker saga, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. “What’s exciting to me is that I don’t know how he’s going to end it, but I know it’s going to be satisfying. I know it’s going to pull everything together. I’m just so excited to see him do it. He’s such a great storyteller.”
While he waits on word from a galaxy far, far away, Johnson has another idea: “If this movie does alright, if Daniel and I can get together and do another Benoit Blanc mystery, that would be a blast.” He’d surely have more to say about what’s rotten in America, too. “That’s the kind of stuff you can hopefully dig into in any movie,” he says. “That’s the reason to make anything, I think.”