When Harlan is discovered dead, it seems he has killed himself. But that’s not what the police believe. Neither does Benoit Blanc, the famous detective with an elaborate gumbo accent who sits behind them as they question each family member. Craig is clearly having great fun here, especially with his ludicrous accent; all the good detectives, says director Johnson, are caricatures.
“My favourite film depiction of Hercule Poirot is Peter Ustinov’s, because what he got about the character is an essential clownishness,” he says. “It’s what makes the suspects not take him seriously, like Colombo’s working-class bumbling or Miss Marple being the spinster serving tea.”
He also loves stuffing a film with famous faces that will give the audience an enjoyable jolt. “Who’s that guy?” demands daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) who is fiddling two allowances from Harlan to finance her alternative therapy habit, in the middle of her interrogation. The camera swivels to show us who it is. Well, the name’s Bond, James Bond, isn’t it?
The film is full of those sorts of knowing jokes. Nastiest of all the Thrombeys is playboy grandson Ransom, played with enjoyable incongruity by none other than good-guy Captain America Chris Evans. Even the nicest of them, however, feels tremendously entitled. They’re rich because they’re worth it.
“I know, as Americans, we are very adept at doing this,” says Johnson. “Retelling your own story so that if you’re in the castle, anyone who isn’t in the castle just hasn’t worked as hard as you. It’s not because there is something in the system that makes it near impossible for them to get there. I’m conflicted about it because deep down I have that belief built into my DNA: the American myth, this notion that this is the land of opportunity.”
Obviously, this is not a message movie. “But if we’re are going to set a murder mystery in 2019 we have to engage with what everyone’s talking about. And yes, the movie has a point of view on that.”
if we’re are going to set a murder mystery in 2019 we have to engage with what everyone’s talking about. And yes, the movie has a point of view on that.
Johnson is interrogating his own circumstances here; he was able to make his first film, Brick, because his family was prepared to pull together $US400,000 to finance it. “It’s not like I was Richie Rich growing up,” he says. “My parents were actually quite poor when I was young and my dad kind of ended up doing well in the home-building business. But that is one of the self-mythologising things, especially with filmmakers: how they scraped together their first film and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. And I’m very proud of that accomplishment.
“It took a lot of work and a lot of determination. But the truth is that even for the lowest budget movie you are spending many years’ salary of your typical family to create shadows on the wall. Every movie is born out of a certain amount of privilege.”
Even after the Twitterstorm that whirled around The Last Jedi, Johnson isn’t exactly a household name. There is a zone where film boffins cross over with hipsterdom, however, where he has been a person of great interest since Brick hit the festival circuit in 2005. Styled after Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime stories, it set a gang war between drug dealers in high school, where dealers spied on each other in the lunch cafeteria and spoke in a weird patois that was half Maltese Falcon and half stoner rave. Critical consensus is that his next film, a con-man caper called The Brothers Bloom (2008), didn’t work, but he came back fighting with Looper (2012), a cerebral sci-fi film about travelling in time to remake the past that is already a classic. Next up, he says, he would really like to see what twist he could put on a romantic comedy. He just has a Star Wars trilogy to finish.
The appeal of a defined genre like science fiction, romcoms or the whodunit, Johnson says, is that there is an established narrative grammar that everyone already understands. “I think your ultimate goal is to deliver the inherent pleasure of any genre. Knives Out is playing directly to the tropes and expectations of a murder mystery. There is no moral murkiness in a whodunit, as opposed to their anti-heroes of Hammett and Chandler which are all about the murk,” he says. “A crime causes moral chaos, a detective comes in and through very clear reasoning, puts the pieces together, identifies the bad person. Order is restored. Especially today, there is something that feels kind of nice about seeing that happen.”
Knives Out is in cinemas November 28.
Stephanie Bunbury joined Fairfax after studying fine arts and film at university, but soon discovered her inner backpacker and obeyed that call. She has spent the past two decades flitting between Europe and Australia, writing about film, culture high and low and the arts.