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Why Rian Johnson's 'Knives Out' sequels are worth the hefty price tag

Director Rian Johnson.
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One mystery that doesn’t need solving is why Hollywood loves to greenlight a sequel for an incredibly popular and critically acclaimed movie. In fact, it doesn’t even need to be that popular or well-reviewed to get a follow-up. In the case of Netflix outbidding streaming rivals Apple and Amazon for the next two Knives Out installments, you don’t need to be a detective to understand the motive behind the reported $400 million-plus deal. Oscar-nominated Rian Johnson is back to write and direct, which is a welcome sign for anyone concerned this might be a case of diminishing returns. Skepticism is a natural reaction because audiences have been burned many times over with sequels, but there are exceptions to this rule (see the conversation in Scream 2), and with Johnson maintaining creative control it will hopefully be more Terminator 2: Judgement Day than Terminator Genisys

The whodunnit genre is beloved by many including Johnson who previously referred to it as “comfort food” in a 2019 interview with Forbes. Rather than opting for a meta tongue-in-cheek approach, he crafted a locked room conundrum that balances a contemporary sensibility without deviating too far from what makes a murder mystery timeless. Knives Out might be Johnson’s first all-out Agatha Christie-style movie, but this is far from the only detective story he has told. So while it seemed like the previously announced Star Wars series might be up next, it is also not surprising that he is taking the success of Knives Out and turning it into a Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) series — sadly this means no forthcoming spin on Phantom of the Opera.

Long before he ventured to a galaxy far, far away, Johnson teamed up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt on two very different noir-inspired movies. Combining the beloved high school subgenre with the gumshoe detective stories of the 1950s revealed early on that the writer/director was capable of crafting an interesting mystery. Released in 2005, Brick was a bold directorial debut that won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at Sundance. Getting the indie festival seal of approval helped put this film on the map (and is probably one of the reasons why I watched Brick in the theater). The disappearance of Brendan’s (Gordon-Levitt) ex-girlfriend kicks off the contemporary-set take on the hard-boiled stories of the past. Inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novels, Johnson proved early on that he could produce a modern take on a familiar detective framework. In this case, the characters speak in a mix of period jargon and Johnson-created additions, which give the movie a distinct stylized theme. Hammett’s The Thin Man, or rather the 1934 adaptation also informed the tone of Knives Out revealing a long thread between his work. 

Con man caper The Brothers Bloom followed, cementing the crime theme but with a playful edge. Switching back to a neo-noir narrative came in 2012 and reuniting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt taking on contract killing with a time travel twist as Joe in Looper. The near-future thriller is set in 2044, which includes some updated technology but on the whole, Joe’s look dials into the 1950s. His penchant for skinny ties (referred to as “chokers”) and leather jackets is inspired by movie stars from this era. Again, this adds familiarity to a twisted version of our reality, and Johnson’s world-building is hard to beat. Even Johnson’s TV directing work features flourishes suited to a whodunnit and his first time behind the camera on Breaking Bad is a spin on the locked room mystery. “Fly” is a Season 3 bottle episode that sees Walt (Bryan Cranston) obsess over how the titular insect entered the lab. 

The mystery element is baked into most of the director’s work and a quick look at Johnson’s Twitter reveals his love of iconic detective Columbo (Peter Falk) as demonstrated by his illustrated header (full disclosure: I too have a Columbo image as my header). Before the news of Netflix’s Knives Out deal was broken, another Johnson mystery project was announced starring another Peter Falk aficionado. Talk of a Columbo reboot pops up every now and then on Twitter with Mark Ruffalo’s name often mentioned — his Zodiac detective look is a polished version of the Columbo coat — but for a gender-flipped version, Natasha Lyonne has also been suggested. As a huge fan of this character, it is impossible to fill Falk’s shoes but either Ruffalo or Lyonne is a good shout. The reason I bring this up is that in March it was announced that Johnson and Lyonne were teaming up on a new Peacock series called Poker Face. Details are light beyond Johnson saying, “I’m very excited to dig into the type of fun, character-driven, case-of-the-week mystery goodness I grew up watching...It’s my happy place. Having Natasha as a partner in crime is a dream, and we’ve found the perfect home at Peacock." While it is unlikely that this is a Columbo reboot, the corkboard investigation in my brain has a red string tied between their very public love of this character and this case-of-the-week production. Either way, it is another win for fans of crime-solving capers.

Columbo turned the whodunnit format on its head by revealing the killer’s identity (and showing the murder) before the lieutenant had even made an appearance. The brilliance of this series and why this character sustained over a nearly 40 year period is a mix of writing and performance. Rarely did the feature-length episodes deviate from this formula and Johnson’s reverence for this genre means he isn’t trying to do anything that is too clever. Knives Out is an effective story because it sticks to a whodunnit structure while offering a new locked room conundrum. The star-studded cast is balanced with a relative newcomer like Ana de Armas, and the lofty New England setting is a funhouse mirror version of a British country estate that Miss Marple or Poirot solved a murder in.

Making $300 million at the box office and scoring an Oscar nomination is a good indicator as to why there was a bidding war for the Knives Out sequels. Theater chains might be frustrated by this choice, but Netflix has previously released several of its big hitters (and award season hopefuls) in cinemas. While no other casting announcements have been made, Daniel Craig is reprising his role as the heavily accented Benoit Blanc. Greece will provide the backdrop so expect some fantastic summer looks to rival the beloved Chris Evans Aran knit (I am picturing The Talented Mr. Ripley meets Mamma Mia on the costume front).  Johnson has been building his writer/director crime case file since his directorial debut and no sleuthing is required to understand why this news has been met with enthusiasm.