The whodunit, with its puffy armchairs, missing murder weapons and meandering trail of clues, never exactly went out of favor. But in "Knives Out," writer-director Rian Johnson has revived the genre with an affectionate ode to Agatha Christie that has some contemporary twists of its own.
"Knives Out" made its raucous premiere Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, keeping rapt festival audiences engrossed in following Johnson's clever genre construction and the film's comic and star-studded ensemble, all of them crowded throughout a lavish country manor that one character refers to as "like a Clue board."
The crime is the apparent suicide of the wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). But the famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, a kind of Louisiana-accented version of Christie's Hercule Poirot) suspects foul play, and he has a colorful cast of family members and others to investigate including Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Ana de Armas. Armas plays Thrombey's faithful immigrant nurse, whose nationality none of the family can get right and who can't help but vomit every time she tells a lie.
Johnson, whose last film was the contentious "Star Wars" installment "The Last Jedi," has already put his deconstructionist touch on film noir ("Brick") and sci-fi ("Looper"). But his love of whodunits runs deep. He grew up reading Christie paperbacks and loving their film adaptations — particularly those with Peter Ustinov as Poirot, such as "Death on the Nile" and "Evil Under the Sun."
He even counts himself a fan of the recent Adam Sandler-Jennifer Aniston Netflix film "Murder Mystery."
"I just love the genre," Johnson said in an interview. "Even though it's sort of a niche corner of a genre, I feel like it's a genre people love disproportionate to the amount of stuff that's out there. Whenever I say 'I just made a whodunit murder mystery,' there's a little glint in people's eyes."
"Knives Out," which Lionsgate will release Nov. 27, faithfully abides many of the traditions of the whodunit while playfully inverting others. Though saying much would spoil the fun, the mysteries of "Knives Out" hover around issues of class disparity and immigration.
"A lot of Christie's characters — like the stuffy old colonel or the butler or the free-thinking young woman who's smoking cigarettes — these are characters that now we think of as entombed in amber as if they're cliches," Johnson said. "But at the time, these were caricatures reminding us of types in British society. So the idea of using that same element of caricature in the framework of this very fun mystery with a modern American setting, with modern American character types, that seemed like fertile ground."
Johnson had the idea for "Knives Out" about 10 years ago and initially planned it as his follow-up to 2012's "Looper." ''Star Wars" changed that. Johnson is also developing a new trilogy for the expanding franchise.
"It wasn't a break in the sense of 'Oh god, I've got to get out this Star Wars machine,'" said Johnson of "Knives Out." ''But there was something really nice about the contrast of doing a very dialogue-based movie. I could hire all these fantastic actors and give them a lot of words. It's just been an essential part of 'Star Wars' to some degree you're always trying to figure out the simplest way to say any thought."
Johnson has some company in his admiration for Christie. Kenneth Branagh made 2017's "Murder on the Orient Express." It did well enough at the box office (an impressive $352.8 million worldwide) that he's prepping another adaptation for next fall: "Death on the Nile."
Like Branagh's film, "Knives Out" is an old-fashioned showcase for movie stars. But its appeal will, for many, be more in how it updates what can be a musty and familiar genre. It's certainly the only whodunit inspired, in part, by Radiohead. While the band's song "Knives Out" doesn't play in the film, Johnson (a fan) liked the expression.
"I hope they don't mind. It's not like the movie has anything to do with the song at all but it's a fantastic phrase," Johnson said. "It always stuck in my head."