Knives Out is fun. It’s Rian Johnson doing an update on the Agatha Christie movies that featured all-star casts that were a regular thing in the 1970s and early 1980s.
On the surface, the movie is about who killed a famous mystery author. Johnson uses the structure to offer social commentary on the hypocrisy of the rich and their abuse of immigrants. The Thrombeys are smug, entitled assholes who fancy themselves as enlightened but are completely dependent on their father’s money. Their late father’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), an immigrant from Uruguay, finds herself at their mercy as she has to deal with detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who’s determined to unravel the whole convoluted mystery.
The twists and turns come fast and loose. The pleasures of the movie come in how everything falls together like clockwork. The satirical points and social commentary pretty much land with a soft touch, but I got the feeling that Johnson’s real interest is in deconstructing and exploring the possibilities of genre. That’s been his whole career.
Rian Johnson: Genre Essayist
Rian Johnson’s movies have always been exercises in deconstructing genre. It goes back to his first move Brick, which reconfigured the Dashiell Hammett detective story to high school. The Brothers Bloom played with the whimsical screwball con artist comedies. Looper was an exploration of the closed loop of time travel stories. Star Wars: The Last Jedi was Johnson’s grand deconstruction and subversion of the themes and tropes of the entire Star Wars franchise. Now Knives Out is his stab at the country house murder mystery.
I always felt a certain sense of detachment in Johnson’s movies. He’s obviously well-versed in literature, movie history and genre. His approach is unashamedly cerebral in his writing and it’s a miracle that he’s managed to sustain a career as a smart genre filmmaker. Even the episodes of Breaking Bad he directed were exercises in genre storytelling, a chance for him to hone his craft.
All his movies are exercises, diligent homework where he’s covering all the points he wants to explore. He’s out to play with genre to make sense of them for himself. He wants to know what makes them tick and how they work for him.
All of Johnson’s movies are exercises, diligent homework where he’s covering all the points he wants to explore. He’s out to play with genre to make sense of them for himself. He wants to know what makes them tick and how they work for him. His questioning and subversion of Star Wars in The Last Jedi got fans angry because that’s the last thing they want. Fans want comfort food in Star Wars, not have their cherished ideas overturned.
Knives Out is Johnson ticking the Agatha Christie murder mystery off his genre bucket list. It’ll be interesting to see which genre he tackles next.