Of all the graduations from indie festival star to blockbuster helmsman the film industry has seen in the past decade (Gareth Edwards’ leap from a $500,000 budget on Monsters to a paltry $160 million on Godzilla just a few years later comes to mind), my personal money would not have been on Rian Johnson to come out decisively being the best of the bunch.
That The Last Jedi, the franchise’s best, is able to be as strange and alluring as the original films presumably were when they first hit cinemas whilst also fixating itself on one theme, which it explores remarkably well, is borderline miraculous. That Johnson, director of easily the most divisive mainstream film I’ve seen in the last few years, has subsequently been entrusted with an entire new trilogy of Star Wars films barely computes, but it’s exciting all the same.
But he is understandably in need of a short break before weathering the doubtlessly ravenous fan culture that will be knocking at his door before production even starts on that trilogy. His main project during that break? An almightily cast, contemporary Agatha Christie-worshipping mystery movie called Knives Out, due in cinemas in November.
The Christie influences start when one stands back to look at the vast cast list. It’s a thrilling mix of established box office pulls (Daniel Craig is joined by Chris Evans and Jamie Lee Curtis), rising stars (Lakeith Stanfield, hot off Sorry to Bother You, and Ana de Armas, one of Blade Runner 2049’s most enduringly great qualities) and superb character actors (Michael Shannon, who basically sells the movie on his own).
And if one glances at a tweet thread of Johnson’s that lists the posters present in the editing room for Knives Out, it fires off a bunch of Christie adaptations, but also references Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. Such comparisons make sense: Gosford Park is probably the last even Christie-esque movie that boasted a cast like this (Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express from 2017 doesn’t count because it was terrible).
What separates Johnson’s film from Gosford Park and actual Christie movies, such as Evil Under the Sun and Murder on the Orient Express, is that this is apparently set in the present day. That complicates certain themes present in both Christie’s work and the films that have cited her as an inspiration. Her multi-faceted character list would often reflect some cross-section of early 20th century society, and examine class relations and how murder can be motivated by such hierarchies.
But it’s unclear at the moment exactly whether Johnson will choose to update that conceit for a society where class distinctions are far greyer than they once were. But Johnson is gifted at probing social groups and their fluid, strange interactions with one another, as he did with post-modern high school noir story, Brick (incredibly, his first movie). When Knives Out premieres at what I’d guess will be the Toronto International Film Festival, or just its set release date in November, we can see whether Johnson’s higher ambitions have dampened his ability at telling smaller, quieter stories.
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