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Director Rian Johnson on the moral clarity of whodunnits and the crazy "Knives Out"

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Writer/Director Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleaser, “Knives Out,” is an old-school murder mystery set mainly in a country estate. Its plot is full of games — both Go and Clue are mentioned — and the puzzle of a crime is described as “a donut hole within a donut hole,” by Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the gentleman sleuth anonymously hired to consult on Lieutenant Elliott’s (LaKeith Stanfield) investigation of wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) suicide — which may, in fact, be murder.

“Knives Out” is a twisty, entertaining film full of red herrings, evil doings, and humor. The comedy-mystery follows Marta (Ana de Armas), who was Harlan’s caregiver. Blanc enlists her help in sorting through characters, clues, and evidence. In the process, she gets up to her neck in lies, deceit, and danger. Marta also has a peculiar response when she lies.

“Knives Out” features an “all-star” cast including Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, and Don Johnson as Harlan’s would-be heirs and murder suspects.

Johnson sat down with Salon to discuss his film, Agatha Christie, and why we love a good mystery.

Are you a game player, a puzzler, competitive?
I am. I do the New York Times crossword every morning. I’ve got a word game that I need to take off my phone… [He searches for it] Did I actually take it off my phone? It’s called Wordscapes. Here it is. This will drive you nuts. [Shows game on phone] I have a four-letter word I can’t find [the letters are C H I S T T]. Is it “sh*t?” [enters S-H-I-T] No, it’s not.

It is “THIS” T-H-I-S.
[Johnson enters THIS, and it works.] You’re my new favorite person. I owe level 549 to you. Well done!

I’ll show you the word game I play on my phone [Wordbrain] after the interview. Otherwise, we’ll never talk about your film! So, what is the appeal of a whodunnit, old school or otherwise? My friend Chris says, “I don’t care whodunnit!” Why do we like murder mysteries?
There has been a bunch of different theories about why this genre stuck around and why it works. There’s the one that does make sense — about it being a comforting genre, the moral clarity of it. There’s a crime in the beginning. The world is thrown into moral chaos. A detective comes in and through moral reasoning and order, he is able to sort out all the pieces, find the bad guy, and put everything right at the end. It’s a stark contrast to noir, and Chandler and Hammett, which is all about moral murkiness. This is about clarity. Consider that the golden age of the genre........

© Salon