Rian Johnson’s had the prototypical career for an up-and-coming 21st-century filmmaker: a few critically acclaimed indies (Brick and The Brothers Bloom), followed by the breakout hit (Looper) that gets you called up to the big leagues to helm a major franchise sequel. Then you do the “one for them, one for me” thing, rinse and repeat.
Nestled in between The Last Jedi and his anticipated upcoming original Star Wars trilogy, Knives Out – which premiered to a rapturous reception at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday night – feels very much like a classic “one for me” movie. It’s a clever, twisty whodunnit that plays like a uniquely modern, meta spin on Agatha Christie, complete with drawing room arguments updated for 2019 with mention of alt-right trolls and SJWs and, yes, you know who.
Simultaneously a fun, frothy murder mystery about the death of a prolific mystery novelist (played by Christopher Plummer) and his uniformly awful family, as well as a razor-sharp indictment of upper-class entitlement, the film hits many of the same notes as this summer’s Ready or Not. And, as a piece of original IP in an ocean of franchise movies, it’s not just the throwback parlor mystery that makes Knives Out something of a rarity.
Except it also happens to boast an ensemble cast that would put most franchise movies to shame. There’s Chris Evans, playing the black sheep in a family where that’s really saying something, giving new meaning to the term “America’s Ass.” (Asked about playing a quintessential jerk after years as Marvel’s quintessential good guy during the Q&A following the screening, Evans confirmed he had been actively looking to go against type, saying, “This did come to me at a time where I was looking to play something a little different, and the moons aligned.”)
Then there’s also Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, a private detective who’s essentially Hercule Poirot by way of Foghorn Leghorn. (Or “CSI: KFC,” as Evans’ character calls him.) The inimitable Jamie Lee Curtis. Not to mention Plummer, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette (as a Goop-esque lifestyle guru), Lakeith Stanfield, Don Johnson. Good luck picking an MVP out of that bunch. And while that A-list cast will undoubtedly be the main draw for audiences, the actors all came for the chance to work with Johnson.
“It was Rian’s script, that’s it,” said Craig. “It’s a wonderful piece of writing. It’s mad, diabolic, crazy, and I loved every second of it,” agreed Plummer.
After weathering an unprecedented amount of online vitriol for the crime of … making a pretty damn great Star Wars movie? Johnson is clearly having a blast here with Knives Out, and it’s a reminder of why he became such a heavily sought-after studio filmmaker in the first place.
His talents as a writer as well as a director are on full display here, not just in pitch-perfect lines like “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you” but in how he manages to play with a relatively forgotten subgenre like the parlor murder mystery to deliver something familiar yet still surprising, the way he subverted genre expectations with his high-school-set neo-noir Brick, the similar throwback con-man comedy The Brothers Bloom, and the time-travel action of Looper.
It’s the same instinct that led to the more shocking (and controversial) moments in The Last Jedi. And the same one that will presumably make his new trilogy so intriguing, once he’s allowed to freely explore that massive galaxy, unconstrained by the inherent audience expectations that come with the names Luke, Leia, and Han.
Earlier this week, Johnson and his longtime producing partner Ram Bergman announced the formation of their own production company, T-Street, where they’ll be looking to produce more original movies like Knives Out, for both themselves and other filmmakers. “We’re going to start making some cool stuff,” promised Johnson. “The thing I’m most excited about is that, making cool stuff. We’re just going to dive into it.”
Sometimes directors go the studio route and get lost in the machine – signing on to a massive franchise like Star Wars and a four-movie deal doesn’t leave much room for passion projects. But as long as Johnson remains committed to making more films like Knives Out, that’s great news not just for Star Wars fans, but for movie fans in general.