A Cut Above
Warning: This review refers to the structure of the plot.
Rian Johnson has a devil in him and it’s time to acknowledge that it’s to be welcomed not exorcized. If you assume everything’s been done in the world of genre filmmaking, the only thing for a filmmaker with an interest in genre to do is try to poke the built-in audience for such mainstays with a little provocative retooling.
When Lucasfilm employed Johnson to write and direct The Last Jedi they probably imagined a safe bridge between the first and third movies of the sequel trilogy, with some of the style the auteur had brought to Looper – his time travel thriller. But they hadn’t watched that or any of back catalogue closely enough. Johnson’s a man always looking for an angle, a workaround to keep him interested and the audience stoked. His solution to being boxed in by J.J Abrams was to tie-off his story threads and do the opposite of what the internet had already foreseen. The internet hated it. But Johnson’s a skilled pair of hands not a safe pair of hands and it’s not his fault if no one at Disney noticed.
Knives Out is another attempt at template trashing that’s going to attract far less opprobrium, not least because significantly fewer people will see it. Here the whodunnit is lovingly layered with characters and iconography ripped from a myriad of sources; everything from Agatha Christie to Sleuth; but the impetus behind the mystery, the reason Johnson’s bothered, is to find that unexplored angle – the untrodden path to the big reveal.
His solution? Tell you who the killer is at the end of Act One, invite you to become invested in whether they’ll get away with it, while holding back a twist for the traditional suspect get-together at the close. You’ll be damned if you know what it is because you’d usually spend a movie like this in a state of anticipation, trying to work out who the culprit was, and you already have that information. In short, this is the movie that proves that Columbo and Christie can co-exist in the same story given the right craftsmanship.
Knives Out wears its influences without the tedium of pastiche or the tension-sapping laziness of parody. Johnson’s army of detractors, still seething at his answer to fandom’s demand for the predictable, will wonder aloud why he can’t just tell a straight story. One’s tempted to remind them that other filmmakers are available.