When it comes to subverting audience expectations, there’s no one quite like Director Rian Johnson. From his feature debut, Brick (2005) to his controversial Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), Johnson has delighted and angered audiences in equal measure. He knows exactly what they want and does everything he can to give them the opposite. Even with all of the yelling, complaining and abuse Johnson has had to take from angry audiences, he appears to be enjoying the infamy and is making the art of subversion part of his directorial brand. With that in mind, Johnson seems to be the best fit for a modern and original murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie. In a genre that is all about seeing what you wouldn’t expect, Johnson’s natural sensibility to surprise the audience feels right at home.
Following the apparent suicide of successful detective novelist and rich family Patriarch Harlan Thrombey (played by Christopher Plummer), Daniel Craig’s famous gentleman sleuth Benoit Blanc, is mysteriously hired to investigate. Interviewing every member of the Thrombey family, Blanc leaves no stone unturned and “suspects foul play”, as the entire family have individually suspicious reasons to want Harlan gone. The eccentric Thrombey family is comprised of an all-star cast, including Chris Evans, Ana De Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell and Riki Lindhome.
With a relatively modest budget of $40 million, having such a large cast of high profile actors is nothing short of miraculous. Across the board, the entire ensemble infuses the piece with delightfully offbeat energy, perfectly complementing the narratives hyper-real tone. Watching these conniving snobs bounce off and undercut one another is a great experience, making for some of the most complex moments as well as the most hilarious. Daniel Craig as Blanc appears to be having more fun with this performance than he usually does and Ana De Armas works well with a wonderfully meaty role as Marta the housekeeper. While not all of the characters get equal treatment, all of them have a unique voice and personality which add to the narrative themes being played with.
When it comes to narrative themes, Rian Johnson successfully gives the audience many things to think about. Even with majority of the runtime taking place in one house, Johnson finds room to touch on ideas of loyalty, legacy, self-worth, inheritance, immigration and internet culture. While discussing complex topics is always welcome, just bringing them up is not enough. Happily, Johnson’s script is intelligent enough to appropriately weave these ideas into a focused story, arriving to a stunning and nuanced conclusion. It’s impressive that Johnson has crafted an effective mystery which gives the viewer a lot of ideas to unpack yet never gets in the way of the thrills, instead only enhancing the fun.
As far as describing the plot without getting into spoilers, the best descriptor is ‘fun’. Johnson of course wants to make you think, but more than that he wants you to have a good time. The entire plot is engineered to be enjoyable from start to finish, with the twists, the turns and revelations ratcheting up the suspense. However, what’s most shocking about the twists and turns is that they not only get the blood pumping, but are also hilariously fun due to their total absurdity. Amazingly, none of these left-field plot developments feel out of place.
Naturally, the mystery genre has to surprise its audience and with the large library of mystery films already out there, Johnson is setting himself a challenge in trying to change up the mystery formula. To achieve this, Johnson has smartly rearranged the typical structure of the genre. When it begins, Johnson structures the drama just like the whodunit you were expecting, but very soon the various plot revelations completely upend everything. The narrative tensions are rearranged to a point where it is no longer fair to even call it a whodunit. Even though the final act starts to reset into genre conventions, the clever restructuring done in the first act takes away preconceived expectation and leaves the audience in the fantastically rare position of just wanting to see where it all goes.
Even with its insistence to change up the formula, Johnson has to adhere to the genre conventions of clue hunting. Like all the best detective stories, you cannot just have this film on in the background only giving half your attention, as all the smallest details are important. Johnson has a complete command over every moment, item, motif and visual cue, all coming together nearly perfectly to create a smart solution. Despite its intelligence, Johnson does overcook the mystery at times and there are some clues which are left hanging a bit too long. Regardless, Johnson still does play fair with the audience, as many modern mystery films sometimes have clues the viewer couldn’t possibly be spot until they are pointed out. It’s a frustrating issue that many recent detective stories suffer from, but Johnson’s smarts mostly avoid this even though it creates some minor flaws.
Whether you think he’s a unique directing voice or the ultimate troll, Rian Johnson’s ability to give his audience what they weren’t expecting continues to be a great source of cinematic originality. The director himself once said that he wants to make films which surprise the audience, with half loving what they saw and half hating it. Even if his work has previously been divisive, Knives Out proves that his distinct voice is just what cinema needs right now. Johnson has created an enjoyable, thrilling and twisted film which effectively plays with many genre conventions. If it hadn’t fallen into some genre traps it could have been perfect, but being Johnson’s best film to date is still an achievement.
Best way to watch it: Without that friend who always asks questions.