Feature Article

Knives Out: How Director Rian Johnson Updated The Whodunit Genre For 2019

You won't find a Colonel Mustard here.

There is a video that gets shared on social media every once in a while, in which Alfred Hitchcock explains the difference between suspense and surprise. In the video, the renowned British director explains that in film, a surprise means making a movie with a big twist at the end. Suspense, on the other hand, is hinting at that surprise from the beginning, creating tension that lasts throughout the movie.

All this is to say that the problem with classic whodunit stories is that you sit there waiting for the detective to spell out the solution in the final act. Writer-director Rian Johnson knows this, and that's why his latest film, the murder-mystery Knives Out, plays with the tropes of the genre to create something that feels new even as it's familiar.

The movie starts out just as many Agatha Christie novels did, with an old, sinister mansion out in the country--and a dead body. From there we are introduced to the Thrombey family, and detective Benoit Blanc, who thinks they all had reasons to want to murder the family patriarch, mystery novel author Harlan Thrombey.

While the bones of the whodunit are there--the suspects, the detective, the manor, the music, the plot points, and the eventual big reveal, the body feels different.

GameSpot had the chance to speak with Johnson following a screening of Knives out at Fantastic Fest, and he told us that there were two things he specifically wanted to include in the movie: a scene with the detective laying down all of the clues, and an interrogation scene. "No matter where we twisted and turned, we wanted to get there," Johnson told us. "The object is always to give the audience the pleasure of the traditional stuff. But I think because we're so used to the rhythm, you have to give them a way to where they have to process it anew and rediscover it. You want the audience to kind of nod along and say, 'OK, I know what this is.' But then you do something slightly different that forces the audience to figure out where it's going to go, then that's where it gets really fun."

While Knives Out quickly deviates from what a traditional murder-mystery does, it still very much feels like an Agatha Christie story, from the music--Johnson said he asked composer Nathan Johnson to employ "very sharp strings that could feel like knives"--to the characters.

However, there are no colonels or bow tie-wearing professors in Knives Out. Instead we get the head of a GOOP-like self-help company, a neo-nazi social media troll, a MAGA dad, a liberal college student, and other heightened but atypical personalities. For the director, there was a simple point of reference as to what the characters should stand for. "Agatha Christie wrote her characters as larger than life caricatures of people in British society," Johnson told us. "I wanted to do that with 2019, so that meant taking archetypes, personalities, and opinions we recognize from today and give them to these characters."

Key to this was the addition of Marta (played by Ana de Armas), a 2019 take on the maid or butler archetype from classic whodunit stories that quickly becomes as important to the story as any other character. Knives Out uses Marta and her interactions with the Thrombey family to comment on 2019 politics, which was important for Johnson. "That was one of the fundamental things I wanted to do," the director explained. "I wanted to apply the whodunit genre to 2019, and to me that meant not just giving people cell phones and making pop-culture references, but like Agatha Christie, using the characters to comment on people or movements from today." This became even more important for Marta, who Johnson says was the only character he held auditions for. "It was important that Marta had spirit. She had to have soul and the audience [had to] empathize with her and be on her side. To me that means that she's not just a boat being drifted down a river, but someone who genuinely tries to navigate this situation as best she can, which we found in Ana."

One of the strongest elements of Knives Out is the comedy. While this is not a full-on parody like Clue, the movie is still funny and self-referential throughout, often using Harlan Thrombey's career as a whodunit author to comment on genre tropes. Johnson pointed out that this isn't new in the genre. "Agatha Christie was playing with those same expectations and tropes in her books," the director said. "Even during the Golden Age of whodunits, hers were very meta and self-aware stories, with characters referring to other detective novels they'd read. So for me, I was just following my inspirations."

Knives Out will be released in theaters on Thanksgiving.

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Rafael Motamayor

Rafael Motamayor (@RafaelMotamayor) is a recovering cinephile and freelance writer from Venezuela currently freezing his ass off in cold, grey, Norway. He likes writing about horror despite being the most scary-cat person he knows.

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