I rewatched Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019) this weekend. I’d heard rave reviews from friends since it came out and even tried (and failed) to go to a sold-out showing when it was still in theaters. I finally watched it after it came out on video, and knew after finishing it the first time that, with all its complex twists and turns, I would have to see it again to fully appreciate the plotting, foreshadowing, character development, and scene setting.
I’ve sporadically enjoyed Johnson’s films since his debut, Brick (2005), which was introduced to me by a film major friend in college. As a fan of hard-boiled detective novels by writer such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, I appreciated Johnson’s deft nods to genre tropes and expectations while placing his hard-bitten hero in a California high school. On the other hand, I hadn’t read James Joyce’s Ulysses before watching Johnson’s sophomore film, The Brothers Bloom (2008), which I didn’t particularly resonate with (and never went back to rewatch to pick up all the subtleties). 2012’s Looper is the one Johnson film I haven’t seen, and while I agree to a certain extent with the haters that The Last Jedi (2017) is not the most satisfying Stars Wars film, I think it is the most ambitious and thoughtful of the latest trilogy.
I was excited when I heard Johnson was returning to the mystery genre, and in fact tackling the traditional closed-house murder mystery. Like Brick, Knives Out wonderfully (and lovingly) blends the stereotypical tropes of the genre with plenty of modern-day subversion and surprise. In the lineage of Agatha Christie, Johnson sets his mystery in an old, wood paneled, overstuffed estate with an ensemble cast of eccentric characters and a larger than life detective, a Southern gentleman sleuth played surprisingly and dryly by Daniel Craig. Unlike the pulp mystery writers of the 1930s, however, Johnson plays freely with nonlinear storytelling, disrupts the standard timing of the murder and revelation of the murderer, and injects an amount of serious social commentary that belies the humor and typical fluffiness of the genre.
The nonlinear storytelling particularly caught my attention the first time I saw Knives Out, and called for rewatching. Through flashbacks early in the film, the viewers learn far more about the events surrounding the murder than the detective, Benoit Blanc, at first knows. Typically in a murder mystery, the reader is limited to the detective’s knowledge so we can try to solve the mystery at the same pace as—or just ahead of—the detective. But in placing the viewer closest to the presumptive murderer, Johnson forces us to empathize with Marta Cabrera and hope, on some level, that Blanc’s investigation is foiled. To have viewers present for the murder also disturbs the conventional order of a murder mystery and “reveals” the conclusion too early, which only makes it feel cleverer and more satisfying later that the real murder—and mystery—are revealed with a proper flourish right at the end by the detective.
Catching all of the careful scripting and foreshadowing is well worth rewatching Knives Out, and as a fan of murder mysteries and Rian Johnson, I’m happy to hear that Lionsgate has already greenlit a sequel.