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Knives Out Will Kill You
Cracking the mystery of why Rian Johnson followed up Star Wars with a whodunit.
Adam Sternbergh

The madcap drawing-room whodunit from writer-director Rian Johnson, Knives Out, is notable first and foremost for its extreme improbability. Not in its storyline— though the plot is reliably packed with hairpin turns and reversals—but rather for the unlikelihood of the film’s existing at all. It’s an original take on an anachronism: the star-studded sleuth film. When Johnson finished a first draft of Knives, an idea that had been germinating for a decade, and showed it to some of his friends, they were skeptical. “A few reactions were ‘We like this kind of movie, but why do you want to do this?’ That did give me pause,” he says. “But I felt like I knew deep down inside why I wanted to do it.”

Johnson’s new film isn’t the only recent whodunit—Kenneth Branagh cast himself as Hercule Poirot in a 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express, and it grossed over $300 million worldwide. But Orient Express is a famous piece of intellectual property from a best-selling author and had been previously adapted for the screen, TV, radio, and the stage. Knives Out is the opposite. It’s original, offbeat, carefully observed, aimed squarely at adults, and, while funny, not at all a send-up like, say, Murder by Death. It’s also overtly political in content, cleverly investigating our divisive current moment. In short, Knives Out is the kind of film that exhibits “the unifying vision of an individual artist,” as Martin Scorsese put it in a recent New York Times op-ed about the kinds of movies he feels are disappearing from Hollywood. What modern Hollywood wants instead are franchise films like Star Wars: The Last Jedi—as it happens, the last film Johnson directed, which goes a long way toward explaining how he managed to marshal the forces to get this idiosyncratic movie made.

Johnson didn’t worry that he was bucking a trend in Hollywood. “Maybe I am completely oblivious, and all the sky-is-falling predictions will turn out to be right,” he says of the state of the studios’ appetite for original films, “but there’s great, fun stuff being made for adults all year long. You’ve just got to go out and see it. I love big franchise stuff too— obviously—but I feel like it’s still very possible to make this.” And to hear Johnson, who’s 45, tell it, there’s not much difference creatively between Knives Out, reportedly budgeted at $40 million, and Jedi, reportedly budgeted at Whatever It Takes.

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November 11-24, 2019

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