Armed with wild twists and silly accents, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out became a surprise box office hit last year.
A modern homage to the classic whodunnits birthed by writers like Agatha Christie, the murder mystery flick was packed with a ridiculous amount of top-tier talent who looked to be having a hell of a time romping around a New England-set mansion, playing increasingly problematic characters who may, quite literally, have blood on their hands.
The many memes and odes to Chris Evans’ waffle-knit sweater were enough to justify the twist-filled plot – a famous crime novelist named Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is killed and it’s up to Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig sporting a slow Southern drawl as thick as molasses) to suss out which privileged heir is the culprit.
He’s got plenty of suspects to choose from – Evans’ arrogant Ransom; Michael Shannon’s bitter Walt, Thrombey’s son who wanted to push his father’s publishing arm into the 21st century; Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a shrewd businesswoman who never earned her start; Marta (Ana de Armas), the hired help constantly enduring the family’s thinly-veiled classism; Toni Collette’s Joni, a woman we can only guess is based off Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop-persona … and that’s without mentioning the grandkids which include a self-righteous college-aged Meg (Katherine Langford) and a neo-Nazi troll (Jaeden Martell).
Watching these elitists bicker and squabble over their right to their father’s fortune as Blanc narrates flashbacks that reveal a bit more of the crime with each new clue uncovered is more than just a good time – it’s good cinema, the kind that harks back to films like The Last of Sheila and Murder on the Orient Express. Johnson gave us colorful, eccentric characters with depth and motivations that made the film’s selling gimmick – the silent “Can you guess who did it” challenge – that much more interesting.
And he did it so well he’s left us craving more, which is why we’re digging into the roots of the genre to find a couple of movies that trade in the same spirit as this modern mystery masterpiece. These are films that inspired and laid the groundwork for Johnson’s eventual murder plot and they’re worth a watch, especially if you can’t get enough of iconic characters, bloody crimes, and thrilling twists.
If this neo-noir mystery proves anything it’s that Johnson’s been honing his skills in this particular genre for quite a while. His directorial debut stars a fresh-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a high school student trying to piece together the events that led to his girlfriend’s death. Steeped in a hardboiled detective style, littered with snappy lines of dialogue and head-scratching wordplay, and borrowing character inspiration from cult anime series Cowboy Bebop, Johnson gave audiences a dark teen thriller that would stand the test of time.
As Brendan Frye, Gordon-Levitt is an emotionally tortured young hero, looking to uncover the truth about his girlfriend Emily’s (Emilie de Ravin) disappearance. He’s forced to trade with drug-dealers and kingpins and fellow students who play in this underground world of crime and Johnson’s able to weave classic murder mystery tropes within this high school hierarchy.
Brick is significantly darker than Knives Out, which serves the story better. Adding too much humor might’ve reduced this to a parody. So don’t come to this film expecting many laughs – though the quick-witted dialogue is often entertaining. Instead, view Brick the first stage in Johnson’s genre evolution, a serious, strait-laced undertaking that proves just as inventive as his current work but with less cheek.
In fact, if it’s more slapstick comedy you’re looking for, you need to revisit this 80s romp starring Tim Curry which is based on the classic board game of the same name.
The film’s become a cult hit over the years and it shares plenty of similarities with Johnson’s modern tale. Both stories are set in elaborate New England mansions. Both center around an unsolved crime – in Clue’s case, quite a few unsolved crimes. Both boast a cast of chaotic, memorable characters whose place in the bigger mystery remains up in the air into the closing act.
Clue trades in more over-the-top physical comedy led by Curry’s butler, Wadsworth (whose fast-paced reenactment of the night’s events in the film’s final scenes is a work of comedic brilliance) and supported by talents like Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren. Filled with cheesy jokes and secret passageways, alternate endings and screwball humor, Clue’s character-work feels like the most direct inspiration for Knives Out. The film established archetypes with characters like Kahn’s suspicious widow, Mull’s corrupt Colonel Mustard, and Llyod’s disgraced Professor Plum, each assigned a colorful pseudonym harking back to the boardgame.
These characters are confined in a space that feels like its own distinct character in the film, one where bodies can be hidden in cupboards and hidden tunnels spill out into servants quarters. The film’s director, Jonathan Lynn, makes use of the set in much the same way Johnson does in his film, having it play a key role in how the crime was committed, helping audiences eliminate suspects by setting certain scenes in specific rooms at various times of the day. Wadsworth, much like Benoit Blanc, feels very in the know, even as he plays dumb about the motives and likeliness of each culprit, eventually walking us all through the night’s events with a sureness that makes us suspect he was in control the entire time.
If anything, Knives Out feels like a slightly more sophisticated riff on this cult comedy, one that’s happy to poke fun at its shared themes. At one point in Johnson’s film, LaKeith Stanfield’s detective describes Harlan Thrombey as a man who “practically lives on a Clue board.”
What both films share is a commitment to squeezing the most from their talented casts and the knowledge that the best murder mysteries don’t rely on twists and turns in the plot, but the characters steering it to make the story memorable.
Sure, there are plenty of other whodunnits you can try that live in the same world as Knives Out – Donald Glover’s Mystery Team, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in Sleuth, the fresh horror-comedy Ready or Not, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Murder on the Orient Express … we could go on – but to understand the film’s essence and to bask in its original inspiration, you’ll need to add these two films to your list.