Movies to Watch Before Knives Out

(Welcome to Knives In, a series about the movies to watch before Rian Johnson’s Knives Out arrives in theaters.)

Put on your murder-solving hat, because /Film has given me jurisdiction to dive deep into one film a day in preparation for the release of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which hits theaters tomorrow. Each film relates to Johnson’s “whodunit” in its own unique way, and each picture should hopefully be viewed prior to patrons watching the new movie on the big screen.

Today, we’ll be discussing Rian’s Johnson’s 2005 debut Brick, and how the movie is a perfect companion piece to his modern day murder mystery.

Hard boiled detective types, library denouements, good bulky sweaters, and contemplative sun covered car drives down long stretches of golden road. Musty mansions, razor sharp shoulder pads, stuffy shootouts and beautifully dangerous women. These darkly details infuse each Rian Johnson presentation with strong noir vibes, starting with his directorial debut Brick in 2005, and peppered throughout his entire resume, all the way through to his latest, Knives Out. Although Johnson himself argues against such categorization – Brick is a film noir, while Knives Out is a whodunit, he stubbornly insists in interviews – both films are clear products of his fascination with the Bogie and Bacall led black and white pictures from the 1940s, and the mystery plot driven, Dashiell Hammett penned novels of the 1930s. Johnson’s first movie may star high school students spouting slang like trench coat wearing cads on a shoestring budget, but when you get down to brass tacks, the fact is that at their core, both Brick and Knives Out are movies about the reluctant hero hunting for clues, trying to solve a case.

Whereas his 2019 star studded big budget production showcases some truly grandiose and admittedly more straightforward gumshoe clues, like a bejeweled knife and a piece of paper containing the bright bold letters “I know what you did”, Brick is more a product of its limitations, relying on code words like “Tug” and “Pin”, a torn party invitation, a distinctive cigarette with an arrow on the filter. However, what Brick lacks in lux and finery it makes up for in emotional investment. The murder mystery at at the center of the story deters a bit from the Agatha Christie style of Knives Out, choosing not to place the emphasis on the twist, but rather, the tugging of the heart strings. When Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds the love of his young life dead in a storm drain, he makes it his mission to learn who was involved, who pulled the trigger, and which particular foe put his forever girl Emily (Emilie de Ravin) in harm’s way.

Admittedly, Brick is much more of a straightforward noir than Knives Out. Both films display Johnson’s love for chase scenes, but whereas Brendan is donning worn out loafers on his foot chase, Marta (Ana de Armas) is flooring it in her sneakers via her compact car. Both films contain a scene that reveals information in the library – Brick actually has more than one – but whereas Brendan is telling Laura (Nora Zehetner), “Now you are dangerous”, a line all but lifted from The Maltese Falcon, and calling her “Angel” like Bogie would call Bacall in The Big Sleep, the characters in Knives Out speak with dialogue that is a little less heightened.  Yet, both films carry an emphasis on objects, on evidence, the camera focusing on images that stay in our brains long after the reels have finished rolling. These moments signify to the audience that whatever we’re looking at is important to the plot, allowing viewers to put themselves in the mind of the detective and follow along with him. Learning the clues at the same speed as the investigator helps us to play along, as if we, too, are right there in that gothic mansion, ready for action, on the case.

When Johnson’s first film won the Special Jury Prize for originality of vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, fans and critics alike wondered how the writer/director/editor managed to make a modern day film noir feel so believable and grounded. How could words like “Heel it now, dig?” come out of the mouths of early 2000s teenagers and yet, the film maintains an air of elegance that resonates with audiences? The answer is because when the kids say the lines, they’re not winking at the camera. Just as Johnson proudly assures patrons that Knives Out is not going to be Clue, neither is his first movie meant to be an arch parody. Gordon-Levitt, Ravin, Meagan Good and Lukas Haas play their characters straight, creating an environment that feels real, so when the situation grows direr, the outlandish events are easier to accept. Brendan’s bandaged snout may be a clear callback to Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, and the bird on the mailbox of the safe house might be an overtly obvious homage to The Maltese Falcon, but our ability to relate to the roles causes us viewers to root for the cynical school-goer to make it out of the Pin’s headquarters alive.

Johnson’s tendency to draw inspiration from books rather than other features harkens back to the mindset of another filmmaker, Park Chan-wook, and his habit of calling on literary classics to inform his own works of art. Admittedly a fan of Franz Kafka, director Park’s use of motifs in his movies display his affinity for seeing stories as a physical journey, notoriously remarking to reporters that if you want to be relaxed, you should just go to a spa. Even his 2013 film Stoker plays like a loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’, inadvertently proving that Mia Wasikowska would make a perfect Mary Katherine Blackwood if given half the chance. Although Johnson himself has never publicly admitted any sort of affection for the South Korean director, his explosive drama room scene in Brick where Brendan throws a nearby clock at the mirror and it shatters, Kara doused in geisha makeup just below, evokes an eerily similar vibe to Park’s Lady Vengeance when the titular characters sits and laughs below a reflected surface, both scenes being shot with the camera nearly on the floor, pointed upward, the siren smirking. There’s even a moment where Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is donning a costume that nearly covers her eyes in The Last Jedi, evoking an image that’s very similar to Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee)’s infamous ensemble, as she welcomes Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn (John Boyega) back into the loving arms of the Resistance.

Park’s not the only possible cinematic influence, though – a much clearer one is John Carpenter. One of the things that’s so lovely about Brick is how it brings big Escape From New York vibes, especially the way the house lamp in the Pin’s pimped out van mirrors The Duke’s (Isaac Hayes) lit up Cadillac. A true pupil of the master, Carpenter’s influence seems to have seeped into every single one of Johnson’s films – one could even argue that the ending of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is basically the same ending that Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken undergoes in Escape From L.A. In his latest movie, Knives Out, Johnson even takes Jamie Lee Curtis, an actor who first made her mark in Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween – a movie about a psycho with a knife who stalks babysitters in their homes – and casts her as a real estate agent who sells – you guessed it — homes, in a film with the word ‘knives’ in the title. Brick, like Halloween, is a low budget indie film that is set around high school kids. Basically, Johnson understandably has the hots for the master of horror, and that appreciation helps elevate his work to another level.

What’s so wonderful about Johnson going on to make gigantic blockbusters like The Last Jedi, and what’s so endearing about this particular director is how he has managed to pull off the impossible thing: he used his newfound clout, money and resources to go back and make movies like Brick again, the quiet and purposeful drawing room whodunit. The fact that Johnson had used the same cinematographer Steve Yedlin and the same producing partner Ram Bergman, and the same actor Noah Segan, and the same composer Nathan Johnson (who happens to be his cousin), proves that in his bones, director Johnson just wants to make good movies with people he trusts. Only now, he gets to cast actors like Toni Collette and LaKeith Stanfield and Chris Evans in a nearly single location detective thriller while simultaneously getting back to the angle that made him great in the first place – subverting the genre. For Brick, Johnson took a seedy, rainy, L.A. city noir like The Big Sleep and placed it in a suburban high school. For Knives Out, he took a fussy British crime thriller from the 1970s like Death on the Nile and placed it in modern day America. This both prevents the audience from tuning out and allows the actors to take the material more seriously, a combination that creates a truly clever and playful theatrical experience.

Johnson’s exciting new crime thriller is the perfect evidence of his evolution as a filmmaker, his roundabout way of coming back to square one and revisiting the material he’s always loved in order to craft the feature he was born to make. It’s a simple plot that’s plagued his thoughts and inspired his eye since day one: a lonely hero searching for clues.

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