“Knives Out” is a whodunit with a lot more on its mind than just catching a killer. The latest movie from writer-director Rian Johnson — who dipped into mystery with his high school noir debut “Brick” and upended expectations in a distant galaxy with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” — is a playful story of money, privilege and murder. Along with its twisting, surprising storytelling, the movie engages with many contemporary topics, from immigration to social media and more.
Christopher Plummer stars as Harlan Thrombey, a preeminent crime novelist who is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday. His entire family, whose lives depend in no small part on the patriarch’s vast wealth, could be considered suspects — the formidable ensemble includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Michael Shannon — as could his young caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas). Into their midst come two local police officers (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and an eccentric private investigator named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).
While editing “Knives Out,” Johnson essentially created a syllabus of whodunit inspirations by posting a series of photos online of various movie posters. His finished product bursts with such references, whether “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap,” Agatha Christie adaptations or lighter genre spins like “Clue” and “The Private Eyes.” The movie also includes a glimpse of a “Murder, She Wrote” episode, dubbed in Spanish, a made-up Danica McKellar Hallmark movie called “Murder by Surprise,” and the voice of Johnson’s longtime collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a David Caruso-like cop on a TV crime show.
But rather than some kind of hodgepodge of ideas from other books and movies, “Knives Out” feels singular, wholly of itself with a spirit of madcap invention. Johnson recently sat down to sift through the matrix of references and influences within the world of “Knives Out.”
Beware! Spoilers follow.
What was your inspiration with “Knives Out”?
Rian Johnson: The basic idea was kind of twofold — or threefold, I guess — a whodunit that turns into a Hitchcock thriller that turns back into a whodunit at the end. That combined with — and spoiler alert — doing the “Columbo” thing of tipping the “murderer” early but setting it up in such a way where your sympathies are genuinely with that person. That creates an interesting dynamic where the mechanics of the murder mystery itself become the bad guy of the movie. The fact that the murderer gets caught is the thing that you’re dreading. And that seemed very interesting to me.
It’s such a meta thing to do, but that felt right because the murder mystery genre has always been a meta genre, even from its roots. You can read books written in the ’20s where the characters in the books are joking with each other about how they found themselves in a murder mystery.
When you’re sitting down to write, do you already have a mental list of references or influences?
Generally I’m thinking less about direct influences and more just about my idea for the story and what it means to me. The times that I’ll specifically go to influences are often when I get stuck. For this one, I did go back and look at “Death on the Nile” and “Evil Under the Sun” and timed out how long the denouement was at the end. I was like, “How long are these things actually? Cause I have in my head that it’s like 10 minutes at the end, but I’ve written a half-hour thing.” And I went back and watched it and I’m like, “Oh, thank God, it is usually 20 to 30 minutes of actually just explaining it.” But generally if I’m drawing from something it’s kind of a deeper well, it’s something that I just love and it’s kind of already there.
Were there mystery writers besides Agatha Christie that you were thinking about?
Christie was the big one. I’ve read Dorothy Sayers. I’ve read John Dickson Carr, Conan Doyle. A.A. Milne wrote a whodunit. It was such a popular genre, so many people liked to try their hand at it. For me, though, I have yet to find a whodunit author who resonates with me like Christie. Mostly because of the colorful characters she creates. As much as she’s lauded, I feel like she’s still weirdly underrated. She’s so good at engaging you with these caricatures of characters who still have enough emotional resonance to draw you in. It’s kind of amazing what she does.
Stephen Sondheim co-wrote the murder mystery movie “The Last of Sheila.” And at one point Benoit Blanc is listening to music and singing along to Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.” Why that song?
I was listening to “Follies” while I was writing. I loved the idea that Blanc is working on the case and he’s got this big showstopper of a song in his head. Generally, I just wanted to get a Sondheim reference in there. Sondheim is an avowed mystery nut and puzzle nut. Actually “Sleuth,” I don’t know if it’s apocryphal, but supposedly the character that Laurence Olivier plays in “Sleuth” is based on Sondheim to some degree. And the working title of the play was “Who’s Afraid of Stephen Sondheim.” And Sondheim used to throw murder mystery parties for his friends. That’s where “The Last of Sheila” comes from, the movie he wrote with Anthony Perkins. It’s about a rich guy who throws these crazy murder mystery parties. I’m just a massive Sondheim fan anyway, so it felt good to give a nod to him.
Tell me about Flam, the Goop-like lifestyle business run by Toni Collette’s character.
Zooming back a little, I think that people tend to have this misconception of Christie’s books, that they were timeless and ... kind of sealed and locked in amber in this fantasy world. They weren’t. ... She’s very much engaged with the British culture in the moment that she’s writing. She was writing from the ’20s, ’30s up into like the ’60s, and you can pick up any one of her books and tell what decade it’s from because she is engaging with the culture.
So if we’re going to set [the movie] in 2019, what’s exciting about that is not just doing Professor Plum with a cellphone, but taking character types from 2019 the way that she was taking them from Britain in the ’30s, drawing caricatures of types that can only exist today. That meant the social influencers, the lifestyle gurus, the internet trolls — all this stuff that we’re very uniquely dealing with right now. It actually felt very correct in terms of paying homage to Christie to draw those out.
MAJOR! SPOILERS! AHEAD!
There’s this whole cycle of eat-the-rich movies right now with “Joker” and “Parasite.” How do you feel knowing the movie you’ve made and then seeing those other movies coming out?
There’s just a lot in the air right now in terms of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. And I think any movie that’s worth a damn is born out of the culture and reflects it. To me, “Knives Out” is not about “eat the rich.” To me it’s about — I guess for lack of a better word — privilege, the way we alter our narrative in order to downplay the ways in which the biases of the system have worked in our favor.
The sin is not being successful or being rich. The sin, I think, is somehow mythologizing yourself once you get there that you’ve been playing on a level field, that you haven’t benefited from any of the inherent biases in the system and that anyone who isn’t in there must not be working as hard as you did. And then realizing that you also got there because you got help. If you’ve made it to a certain place in life, whether it’s about either money or position or status or whatever, it’s your turn to help, especially the people who the system doesn’t treat fairly.
There is a twist on the twist, discovering that Marta thought she had given Harlan the wrong medication and killed him, but then discovering they had actually been switched by someone else and so she did in fact give him the correct medication even though it was mislabeled. Was it difficult to keep the complications of all that straight?
It was very difficult for me to simplify it to the point where I could keep it straight. That was the essential thing. It took a lot of work to get to a point where it does make sense technically, all the stuff that happens, but you also have to get it to a point where it can make sense to an audience in the flow of an actual scene without sitting there and drawing a diagram for them. And the notion that ... she actually grabbed the correct medication because she recognized it, that was an additional [complication] on there. But ... morally what that ends up doing, grounding her in that way, it felt like that was worth it.
But, man, it was a headache and that was the thing that I beat my head against the wall the most about just in terms of plotting. And really the whole thing is aimed towards the very initial thing that I said, which is, “How do you have someone kill somebody — and in the moment they believe they’ve killed them, and the audience believes they’ve killed them — and you’re still on that person’s side 100 percent?” How do you make that happen? Cause in the moment where that switch-up happens, you die the first time you’re watching the movie. You genuinely believe she’s messed up and killed this man. And so you can’t blame her for it in the moment.
[The challenge was] figuring out how [to] play the logistics so that an audience will roll with that. A big part of it is [Harlan]. Once I came on the notion that, “OK, if she does this, they have this 15 minute window where he can be the one who’s convincing her, ‘What I want is for you to get out of this. And here’s the reasons why,’” that was a big part of it.
Marta triumphs in part by being a good person and one of the big reveals in the movie is that having a kind heart makes a difference. For a genre that easily could have a much more sinister tone, why did you want that to be one of the main takeaways?
It was really important to me, because we were counteracting not only the sinister tone of the genre, but also the fact that we were going to be engaging with so much of what’s ugly about culture in 2019. I felt like to have an uncynical ending felt very important in this context.
Also, I think it’s in keeping with the genre, the whodunit genre — and this is what sets it apart from Hammett and Chandler and the fiction the film noir came out of. The whodunit genre has an element of moral comfort to it in that there’s a crime, everything is thrown into chaos, the detective comes in, usually kind of a benevolent father of a detective, and through reason and working it out bit by bit, he’s able to ... put everything back in its right place. Moral order is restored at the end of a whodunit in a way it never is in film noir. And so there is an element of fairy-tale-like comfort to these books that I feel is essential to them.
And with some exceptions — she got darker as she got into her later period — Agatha Christie’s books very often do leave you with a good feeling, like good has prevailed. And I wanted that. I feel like we all kind of deserve that a little right now.