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In Rian Johnson’s Movies, Family Is a Four-Letter Word

‘Knives Out’ is a perfect Thanksgiving movie: It’ll make you realize that maybe your own family isn’t that bad after all

It’s natural that Rian Johnson is going to be asked questions about how closely his own family resembles the rotten Thrombeys of Knives Out, his fiendish little whodunit with a big, starry cast. But in a recent interview, the writer-director insisted that he didn’t draw inspiration from his own clan. (“I have a big family,” he said, “but they’re nothing like the family in the movie.”) Thank goodness.

Led by celebrated novelist Harlan (Christopher Plummer), the Thrombey family is made up of terrible people. Ransom (Chris Evans) is a glib, sarcastic playboy. Joni (Toni Collette) is a smug, Gwyneth Paltrow-like lifestyle guru. Walt (Michael Shannon) is a greedy, weak dolt who busies himself curating his dad’s literary empire. Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is an alt-right creep. And so on and so forth — just about everybody is snide, cynical, bitter or a philanderer. So when Harlan is murdered, a quirky detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), discovers that he has more potential suspects than he knows what to do with. Knives Out is a perfect Thanksgiving movie: It’ll make you realize that maybe your own family isn’t that bad after all.

Five films into a career that has established him as one of America’s most inventive and promising fortysomething directors, Johnson often likes to play around with genres, turning them inside out, reconceiving them or just enjoying the hell out of them. Knives Out is no different — it’s an unabashed love letter to Agatha Christie mysteries, updated for the age of Trump and online trolls — but Johnson’s assured cleverness often masks an emotional side that’s less apparent at first blush. What links his five movies is his main characters’ anxiety about family: losing one, finding one, enduring one, trying to cobble one together. The Thrombeys are the most poisonous clan in Johnson’s oeuvre, but in their own ways, each of his previous movies are about protagonists who can’t quite come to terms with the mixture of love and hate that family engenders.

Johnson launched onto the scene with Brick, his 2005 thriller that reconceived the high-school drama as a noir — the idea being that, for teenagers, life is as dangerous and electrifying as a hardboiled detective novel. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a moody loner, but after his ex-girlfriend is murdered, he becomes a junior Sam Spade, trying to figure out who killed her. The kid talks like a 1930s gumshoe, but his studied cool is a way to wall off the loneliness and alienation he feels — you know, the normal angst experienced by lots of teens.

In Brick, Johnson examines not so much family as he does community — the need to locate your tribe in a big, scary world. (Tellingly, parents are almost nonexistent in the movie: The one mom we see is a suburban sweetie who embarrasses her posturing son around his friends by offering them homemade cookies.) In his pursuit of the truth, Brendan only finds snakes and liars — his detective work serves to merely exacerbate his suspicion that he has no one. 

But maybe Brendan’s luckier than Stephen and Bloom, the unsettled siblings of Johnson’s follow-up The Brothers Bloom. Orphans who had to lean on one another in childhood, they’ve become conmen, a lucrative profession as long as you don’t mind a life of perpetual loneliness. Bloom (Adrien Brody) wants out, but Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) pressures him into doing one last con, which involves wooing an eccentric millionaire named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). Like Bloom, she’s painfully alone, hoping for some sort of connection. Instead, they’re both pulled into Stephen’s maniacal series of double-crosses.

The Brothers Bloom is its own elaborate con job — we’re in the same boat as Bloom and Penelope, unsure whether what we’re seeing is real or a fake-out — but Johnson is hinting at how, in their own way, emotions are a sort of sleight of hand. We want to believe that the people close to us love us, but are they just lying? And do we lie to them, too, because we want to trick them into loving us back?

In Looper, the idea of family gets even more complicated as Joe (Gordon-Levitt), a lone-wolf hitman in the future, finds it understandably difficult to kill his next target, the older version of himself (Bruce Willis) who’s been sent back in time. Much more successfully than in the recent Gemini Man, Johnson’s film explores the tension that we feel about our younger self — the regret and anger we harbor over not living up to the potential that once seemed so apparent within us.

But this time-traveling sci-fi thriller is also about how a solitary soul finds community. For Joe, it comes in the most surprising of places: He ends up having to protect a mother (Emily Blunt) and her young son (Pierce Gagnon) from the older version of himself, in the process becoming the de facto father of this unlikely family. But even in Looper, a happy ending doesn’t come easily: Joe has to sacrifice himself so that they can survive. A complete, functional family is seldom seen in a Rian Johnson film — maintaining one is just about impossible.

That’s why The Last Jedi, beyond being a really good Star Wars movie, is also a fascinating shift from Johnson’s usual portrait of family. Here, the community is the Resistance, which fractures during the film but comes back together at the end, stronger than ever. Those who have walked away from the family, such as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), return like prodigal sons. Hotheaded soldiers, like Poe (Oscar Isaac), realize that the wise maternal figure, Leia (Carrie Fisher), knows more than they do. Divisions are healed, bonds restored.

But some family ties prove tighter than others. Rey (Daisy Ridley) wonders if she possesses some special birthright to be a Jedi — only to learn that her long-lost parents were nothing special. On the other side of the coin, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the wayward son of Leia and Han Solo, but he has turned his back on their cause, choosing the Dark Side. The Last Jedi preaches the importance of the family unit, no matter how imperfect: Those who form communities (the Resistance) end up being victorious over those who reject them (Kylo Ren).

After that warm depiction of family, Johnson brings us his bleakest with Knives Out, which dissects all the ways that money and blood don’t mix. The Thrombey clan has been spoiled rotten by Harlan’s literary success. And although Harlan is a mostly benign individual, his offspring (and their offspring) have gotten fat off the fruit of his labor, contributing very little to the world themselves. Sadly, that doesn’t stop them from being insufferable and entitled, which has led Harlan to lament that he’s failed as a patriarch. When he gathers his family to his gorgeous home for his 85th birthday, he realizes he’s surrounded by ungrateful, miserable people.

Blanc discovers the same thing when he goes to the house the following day to investigate Harlan’s death. But there’s one exception: Keep an eye out for Marta (Ana de Armas), the Thrombeys’ tenderhearted and loyal South American caretaker. Blanc will recruit her to be his partner in this investigation, but she also serves as a guide into the terrible Thrombeys. Marta is a saint compared to just about everyone we meet in Knives Out, and through flashbacks, we see how she and Harlan formed their own platonic mini-family, building a buffer against the wolves around them. Blanc loves the thrill of the hunt, but for Marta, this whodunit is personal: She wants to find the killer as a way to avenge her friend, the one person who was nice to her in the family. (The rest of the Thrombeys can’t even remember what country she’s from — and the truth is, they don’t care.)

In the past, Johnson made films about characters who couldn’t find a community. But in Knives Out, family is deadly — for Harlan, maybe it was better to create his own than to be trapped in the one he was born into. No doubt that notion will be comforting to some who watch this delightfully acidic film over the holidays with their dysfunctional clan. The Thrombeys may be nothing like his own family, but Rian Johnson feels your pain.

Here are three other takeaways from Knives Out….

#1. Let’s remember the great ‘Breaking Bad’ episode Johnson directed (that a lot of fans hated).

When Rian Johnson wrote and directed The Last Jedi, it earned the best reviews for a Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. And then… fans saw it and were enraged. To be fair, lots of people loved the movie, but a select group of super-nerds thought it was awful, incensed that Johnson dared mess with the franchise’s lore. For a lot of us, The Last Jedi was that rare challenging and thought-provoking blockbuster. But, clearly, you can’t please everyone.

This was actually not the first time that Johnson’s had to deal with a hard-to-please fan base. Seven years earlier, he directed one of Breaking Bad’s best episodes… which a lot of the show’s audience hated. That’s what you get for taking risks. 

“Fly” was a Season Three standalone episode that’s almost a one-act play. Most of “Fly” consists of Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) in their lab, but they can’t get any work done because there’s a fly somewhere in the cavernous room. Walter fears that the fly will contaminate the batch they’re about to cook, so he insists that they can’t do anything until they kill that buzzing insect. As you might imagine, that’s a very hard thing to do, especially if you can’t find the damn fly.

IMDb users rated “Fly” as the worst episode of Breaking Bad, no doubt because it didn’t further the overall narrative and didn’t feature the show’s usual twists and turns. It’s what’s known as a bottle episode because it’s self-contained, almost like a pause in the storyline. But what’s great about “Fly” is that it’s funny and tense in a very specific way: The whole episode is about killing a fly although, of course, that’s not what it’s really about. The claustrophobic story allows us to get a sense of the unraveling that’s going on inside Walter. He thinks he’s in control of the increasingly more dangerous world he’s entered, but he’s not — hell, he can’t even outsmart a fly.

Johnson was a fan of the show when he was approached to direct “Fly” — although he’d never directed anything that he hadn’t written himself. (Sam Catlin and Moira Walley-Beckett wrote “Fly.”) “It’s a very weird episode… very strange,” Johnson later said. “It’s very different from the rest of the season in many ways. It got very well reviewed but if you read the [fan] comments, it really split people. They’re either saying it was the best episode of the season, or the worst. It was that kind of thing, which is exciting.”

With both The Last Jedi and “Fly,” Johnson took something that people loved and then tweaked it a little, enriching the characters but, in some ways, “violating” the unspoken agreement that the creators had with the fans about how the movie/show should be. This makes fans unreasonably angry, which is ridiculous. 

By the way, Johnson directed two later Breaking Bad episodes: “Fifty-One” (the one where Walt gets the sports car) and “Ozymandias” (the one where Hank gets killed). Fans generally like those better because they’re more consistent with the overall ethos of the show. But “Fly” is a pretty special episode, too. Sometimes, the opinions of people who love something the most just shouldn’t be trusted.

#2. Where did the term “whodunit” come from?

Knives Out is billed as “A Rian Johnson Whodunit,” a cheeky reference to a very specific kind of mystery-thriller. Most people know that a whodunit is a shortened form of “who done it” — meaning, it’s a movie where you try to figure out who committed the murder or crime. But who first coined the term? 

There seems to be some debate about this. According to Merriam-Webster, it originates from a 1930 book review: News of Books’ Donald Gordon apparently described a novel called Half-Mast Murder as “a satisfactory whodunit.” But other sources, like The State of the Language, attribute it to Variety, the Hollywood trade publication that reportedly came up with other now-commonplace entertainment terms like “cliffhanger” and “blockbuster.” Best anyone can tell, the term started somewhere in the 1930s, eventually becoming a catch-all for any Agatha Christie-style mystery where there are lots of suspects that need to be winnowed down.

Alas, the mystery of the origins of “whodunit” continues. My next question: Why isn’t it called a “whodidit”?

#3. It’s weird when an old song is featured in two different movies in the same year.

As someone who’s also a pretty big music fan, I tend to notice when songs are included on a movie’s soundtrack — especially when they’re used in a really striking way. I hated The Beach Bum, but I thought Harmony Korine did a really good job incorporating Gordon Lightfoot’s 1974 hit “Sundown” into an evocative montage. Now, when I listen to the song, I think of that sequence. So, it was a little jarring when Johnson used the exact same song in Knives Out for a pretty important moment. My brain only has room for one great song-and-visuals combo, damn it.

In the history of movies, certain songs have been used well in two different films. The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” is the song that Elisabeth Shue dances around to in the opening of Adventures in Babysitting, a pretty indelible moment. But most folks now associate it with the famous tracking shot from Goodfellas.

Then you have instances where a song is incorporated into a film that becomes so legendary that other films take the song as a way to reference the original movie. For instance, the title “Also Sprach Zarathustra” probably doesn’t ring a bell, but if I told you, “The dun-dun-dun … DUN-DUN! song from 2001,” you’d know exactly what I meant because it’s been parodied so often.

Oh, and don’t forget that some songs have just become sonic placeholders for a certain kind of emotional moment or narrative cue. Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey compiled some of the most overdone examples, such as “Sweet Home Alabama” (which is an easy way to tell the audience, “Welcome to the South!”) or “Carmina Burana” (as Bailey puts it, the song signals to the viewer, “Shit is about to go down”). But shame on him for not mentioning the super-peppy “Walking on Sunshine,” which is often used to suggest a happy time (The Secret of My Success) or to ironically comment on a character or scene that’s very, very serious (American Psycho).  

So, who wins the “Sundown” showdown? In terms of how it’s used in the film, I have to give the edge to The Beach Bum. But as an overall movie experience, the clear victor is Knives Out. Now, nobody else use “Sundown” for a while, please.