Writer and director Rian Johnson has spent his career fine-tuning a personal recipe for movie magic. “Knives Out,” which screened twice Wednesday night as one of Chicago International Film Festival’s biggest draws, comes awfully close to achieving it.
With the help of an all-star cast including Toni Collette (“Hereditary,” “Velvet Buzzsaw”), Jamie Lee Curtis (“Halloween,” “True Lies,”) and Michael Shannon (“Take Shelter,” “The Shape of Water”), the 45-year-old filmmaker’s newest film brings modern sensibilities to an old school whodunit thriller.
Sitting in a tastefully appointed suite at The Peninsula Chicago (108 E. Superior St.) during his media day for “Knives Out,” Johnson (“The Last Jedi,” “Looper”) spoke to The Phoenix about managing the film’s ensemble cast, his approach to social commentary and his goals as a filmmaker.
“Knives Out” follows renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) as he aids a police investigation into the supposed suicide of beloved crime novel author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Harlan’s death came just hours after the conclusion of his 85th birthday party, a family affair including plenty of potential suspects.
Blanc joins Lieutenant Elliot (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) when they head to Harlan’s mansion to interview his family, and his live-in nurse and “honorary family member” Marta (Ana de Armas). As the family interviews begin, the film’s ensemble cast is revealed through a darkly funny montage of competing false stories.
Johnson said he was worried about the cast’s “big personalities” initially, but working with this many household names was “incredibly easy” since the cast and crew got along well.
“No one would go back to their trailer between takes,” Johnson said. “They’d just go down to the basement and hang out together. It was really like this camp-like environment.”
Harlan’s widowed daughter-in-law Joni Thrombey (Collette) and son Walt (Michael Shannon) tell the cops shaky stories, and his daughter Linda’s (Curtis) malevolent son Ransom (Chris Evans) is nowhere to be found. Elliot insists the case is clearly a suicide, but Blanc isn’t convinced, so the officers keep pressing.
Johnson cited “Clue,” “Sleuth” and mystery novelist Agatha Christie’s recurring detective characters Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot as direct influences on the film. Still, for all its 20th century influences and references, this is a movie conscious of the social climate it’s releasing into.
The Thrombeys fight about immigration and the Trump presidency, and Marta, whose family immigrated from Mexico, is careful to avoid Richard (Don Johnson) and Walt, who want to hear her ‘Uruguayan’ perspective during these family talks.
The film’s social commentary was a core part of its DNA, according to Johnson.
“I can’t really start writing until I have … some kind of conceptual plot or genre element I’m excited about,” Johnson said. “Then I also need… something that I care about, that I’m angry about, or excited about or wanted to explore.”
Johnson said the film, which he’d been conceiving since 2010, first started to excite him when he realized the narrative could address a number of prescient issues on his mind, including wealth disparity and illegal immigration — issues which Johnson described as genuinely interesting.
Johnson’s latest delves into prescient political topics, but the film’s brilliance lies in its ability to synthesize them into a genuinely intriguing mystery.
Craig’s (“Skyfall,” “Logan Lucky”) Blanc is the linchpin of the film’s ensemble cast, a cigar-smoking gentleman with a heavy southern accent, a flair for the dramatic and a penchant for solving cases. Craig is known for his ongoing 13-year run playing infamous spy character James Bond, but Bond’s coldly efficient mannerisms are nowhere to be found in Craig’s performance here.
Blanc’s bulging eyes and frantic ramblings are equal parts enticing and amusing. His delicate, mannered approach to interviews quickly shifts to unbridled excitement as he starts unravelling the mystery.
It’s a rangy, nuanced performance disguised as caricature, one that proves Johnson and his casting department were shrewd to single out Craig for the role of Blanc. Johnson said Craig was the first actor to sign on, chosen to give the film’s lead investigator his own personal touch.
“I wanted to find somebody for that part who would be a collaborator and would really create something on screen that I could not have imagined,” Johnson said. “We found the accent, and once we got on set and saw how big he was going with it, I just kinda sat back and enjoyed the show.”
And what a show it is. With Craig as its anchor, “Knives Out” soars, building its tension and laughs through family conflict and a healthy note of dramatic irony.
From his 2005 debut “Brick” to 2017’s smash hit “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Johnson’s films have shown a propensity for ambitious scope in a multitude of genres, and “Knives Out” is no different.
“I love big Hollywood stuff and I love small, weird stuff,” Johnson said. “I love them both equally, and I love new movies that feel like they give you nourishment… give you something to chew on.”
Off-kilter ensemble mystery “Knives Out” leaves audiences with plenty to chew on, but not at the expense of having fun while they’re eating. Johnson said his goal is to make movies that are fun to watch while still working on a number of layers.
“Entertainment is not incompatible with substance,” Johnson said.
“Knives Out,” rated PG-13, releases nationwide Nov. 27.