Knives Out Review: Rian Johnson cleverly transforms the Whodunit into a Whydunit

Star Wars: The last Jedi author and director Rian Johnson has proven he is a master at playing the genre. His debut film Brick dipped into the traditional Noir Detective Territory, but put the action in a high school. The Brothers Bloom twisted the raid and caper conventions, focusing on emotions rather than a physical score to re-invent the meaning of “perfect convention” the nature of power.

Johnson’s new ensemble mystery Knives Out does the same and opens the traps of a traditional mystery to reveal something new. In a puzzle, it’s exciting to find out who committed the crime, but the really hefty part is to pinpoint why everything happened, like Hercule Poirot or Columbo. That sums up Knives Out, which is a Whydunit rather than a Whodunit. Watching the movie feels like you’re opening a gift to discover more gifts in it. The biggest box – the question of who killed the victim – is not the point. Knives Out is a thriller less interested in death than the survivors, and opening these smaller boxes is a pleasure.

The film opens with the 85th birthday celebration of bestselling thriller author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), gathering his entire family on his estate. The next morning Harlan is found dead, and although the police initially orders his death as suicide – Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) are in the case – celebrity private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) who became mysteriously called into the house, believes Harlan was murdered.

The Thrombeys, just before the tragedy strikes. Claire Folger / Lionsgate

The assembled Thrombeys are shocked, but as Blanc quickly realizes, each family member has his own reason to fret about the deceased patriarch. Each one depended on Harlan’s money in one way or another, and on that fateful night, everyone was in positions where this stream could be interrupted. Soon, however, bigger questions are coming up, including who called Blanc to the house (even if he does not know it) and what will ultimately happen to the fortune Harlan left behind.

The Whydunit aspect of the film comes to the fore as the peculiarities of the family come to light. Blanc is working with Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s janitor and confidant, to put together the circumstances surrounding Harlan’s death. “Why is Harlan dead?” Being asked as the main question, but it quickly leads to a bigger question: “Why are these people the way they are?” Johnson creates a complicated context for Harlan’s death and considers how secretive such an immense fortune has influenced Thrombey’s world view and their respective places in contemporary culture.

Leading eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) considers herself home-grown and looks down on her brother Walt (Michael Shannon), whom she believes has been turned over to her father’s publishing house. But her real estate empire was founded with a million dollar loan from dad. Likewise, her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and her son Ransom (Chris Evans) are dependent on her and Harlan for their income, but pretend that they own everything around them. Walt sees himself as Linda as an independent force, but scrubs his father’s instructions on how he should take care of his work, as he gives up the business with Netflix to adjust Harlan’s secrets. Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a widow, relies on Harlan to finance her home-style lifestyle brand “Flam” and pay for her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) to attend an expensive college.

As Johnson elaborates the Thrombeys, he also executes his murder mystery and turns it into a social commentary. He makes the murder a secondary issue in the family, which sometimes feels like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, when he is a possible liberal who relies on racial and classical behavior when faced with a personal challenge.

Walt’s son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is always on the phone and is referred to as an old-right Internet troll. Richard boasts of seeing Hamilton in the Public Theater before the Broadway run. But conservative or liberal, they all start thinking twice about Marta, as they seem to lose control of Harlan’s money. The Thrombeys all refer to Marta as part of the family, but they have not invited her to Harlan’s funeral and can not agree on which South American country her family came from. And though they are nice to Blanc, they instinctively pass on their garbage to them when they are alone and blaspheme immigrants who are ruining the land.

A tense moment. Claire Folger / Lionsgate

The further the curtain is pulled back on Marta and the Thrombeys and reveals more complex motives than the standard characters they claim, the more complicated the puzzle becomes. These people are not as black and white as the archetypes they originally embody. The relationships of thrombuses to Marta and to money are similarly complicated. This feeling of flowering is just another testament to Johnson’s ability as a filmmaker, as he pulls back the layers of an old genre to reveal something vital and new, and even reversing the classic “Butler Made It” at Marta Part of the story.

Knives Out is also very helpful and fun. Car chases in compact electric vehicles and changing memories play out with almost caricature speed. The cast also reveals the most abhorrent and funniest aspects of Thrombeys, though everyone behind Craig and de Armas is the second fiddle.

Nevertheless, Johnson lets the audience guess. Although he has more in mind than the one who did, Johnson retains a sense of mystery throughout the movie, pulling together the what, where, when, and most importantly why, to create a version of the mystery comedy clue, which he developed points directly to when a Knives Out character describes Harlan’s sprawling mansion. The story Johnson presents falls neatly into the clue box – it’s a detective story with colorful characters and a central location – but it unfolds into something more complicated and immediately relevant, creating a story that is appropriate for a modern audience was brought up to date.

Knives Out is in theaters now.

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