Empire Australasia

Murder, He Wrote

THERE ARE CERTAIN things you need when making a murder mystery. A murder, ideally. A mystery, preferably. But that’s not all. As Rian Johnson found when he was writing and directing his latest movie, Knives Out, there are staples of a genre that stretches all the way back to the 1800s that must be incorporated; that help set a whodunnit apart from any other type of detective fiction. “When people say what’s a good whodunnit and start listing stuff, I’m like, ‘That’s more of a procedural, that’s more of a detective noir,’” says Johnson. “Whodunnit to me is much more specific than that. It’s a tricky genre to do, cinematically, because it has that basic weakness Hitchcock always talked about, where the whole thing hinges on one big surprise at the end. I came into it from a genre-tinkerer’s point of view. How do you approach the plot mechanics of a whodunnit in a way that can make it fresh and still give you all the pleasures of a good whodunnit?”

For anyone who’s seen Brick, Johnson’s spin on a film noir, or Looper, his time-travel twist, it won’t come as a surprise to learn that Knives Out both respectfully nods to, and then pulls the rug out from under, the whodunnit. We asked Johnson to tell us how he tinkered under the genre’s hood.

THE VICTIM

hinges on one big question: who killed octogenarian Harlan Thrombey, and why? And is

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