“The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just what they wanted,” postulates Mark Ruffalo’s Stephen in The Brothers Bloom, Rian Johnson’s sophomore feature. That movie finds many an analogue between con artistry and the filmmaking process, and Johnson succeeds once again at fulfilling his own mantra with his new film Knives Out. As a director, he threads the needle expertly between tickling his own artistic fancy and providing a finished product that pleases an audience. Knives Out further cements his unique position in the industry as a figure capable of being claimed by both the cinematically hyperliterate and general public alike.
After tackling high school, con artists, time travel and space operas, Johnson turns his attention towards a new genre: the good, old-fashioned Agatha Christie-inspired “whodunit.” He assembles a cast so large and stacked with talent that it could make Robert Altman blush. The patrician Thrombey family is not only full of instantly recognizable faces from Captain America to Laurie Strode — it’s replete with just about every possible contemporary archetype of wealthy white Americans. (To describe them all would take multiple paragraphs, so just enjoy how Johnson introduces them all so indelibly within the film.) From alt-right trolls to social justice warriors, “failsons” to wannabe Goop-ers, aspiring moguls to self-satisfied scions, Johnson captures a moment in time with startling acuity. It feels like your Facebook feed came to life inside a tucked-away Massachusetts mansion.
The many branches of crime novelist Walter Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) family tree rarely intertwine, but they’re all brought together again by his birthday party and sudden, suspicious suicide that same night. No one suspects foul play initially, but cryptic private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, sporting one humdinger of a Southern drawl) refuses to rule out that the author has ended up in the thick of a crazy plot of his own. On his side are two well-intentioned but largely ineffective law enforcement officers (Lakeith Stanfield and Johnson’s acting company stalwart Noah Segan) and Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), a cunning and fiercely loyal aide to her employer.
There’s joy, of course, in getting to the bottom of the events and determining the culpable party (or parties — not trying to give any hints that would spoil the film). Knives Out, like most murder mysteries with twists and turns, never feels too precious or hermetically sealed in the mind of the filmmaker. Since expectation and anticipation are baked into the very product, the audience is inherently put at the center of the experience.
But what makes Knives Out such a delectable film is not the way in which the characters attempt to muddle or clarify the past, depending on how they need to calibrate their position with the investigators. To some extent, the whodunit is merely a pretext to explore the way in which the family reacts to the void Harlan leaves in the present. While the Thrombeys run a gamut from MAGA Proud to Limousine Liberal, the disappearance of their hereditary rock introduces a modicum of panic about their future prosperity… or, as the political pundits call it, economic anxiety. Even the most well-meaning of the bunch shows their true colors as they squirm in uncertainty, reacting in the full spectrum from patronizing micro-aggressions to vitriolic bigotry.
The hijinks of the plot always prove riveting, but once you clue into the fascinating political undercurrent running beneath Knives Out, a whole other film unlocks itself before your eyes. Through the murder mystery, Johnson cleverly provides commentary about the entitlement of America’s wealthy elites into a format that’s pleasurable, not polemical. With the exception of one scene where the Thrombey tribes get into a political spat (which makes up for what it lacks in subtlety with accuracy — the conversion feels like a Twitter replies battle lifted directly from the site in July 2018), it’s an element quiet enough to tune out. But for those who can follow a breadcrumb trail to find striking analogues to the First Family, the appeal is quite alluring.
It’s this added nuance and unexpected topical relevance that makes Knives Out such a special piece of genre cinema. Johnson does not use his film to implode or comment extensively on the murder mystery; no one needs a syllabus of a dozen other obscure comparable titles to understand what he’s after. Instead, he subverts and updates the genre. Johnson calls attention to ridiculous elements where he sees them, be they inherent flaws in the whodunit or clichés that audience have accepted for far too long. When he gets self-aware, it’s to call attention to how the murder mystery’s conventions have become a part of our common parlance. When he leans into a cliché, he immediately undercuts it with a joke or self-deprecating line to clarify the preposterousness of a convention.
But Johnson does not just spin his wheels to purely deconstruct. His sincere love of Christie-style mysteries is evident in the way he tweaks them to make sure they are not a mode of storytelling solely preserved in amber. Johnson makes sure to contemporize the genre through his thorough understanding of its mechanics. Further, he digs under the surface to find the kinds of morality that the genre rewards, justifies and perpetuates, only to flip the values on their head. Knives Out challenges the cynicism that so often pervades tales of murderous intrigue and proposes an alternative where, perhaps, a humanistic spirit can thrive within the genre framework.
Johnson’s body of work, Knives Out included, shows his desire to make genre films, and not merely to point out how tired they are. They aren’t worth engaging with only from an ironic distance. Johnson loves whodunits so much that he racked his brain to think 10 steps ahead of the audience so that he could hoodwink them to serve the goal of establishing the genre’s viability in the present day, all while staying true to its classic roots. Rian Johnson cons because he cares.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).