This week on the Research Log, we’re investigating the story structure of one of our favorite films of last year, the complex and original whodunnit, KNIVES OUT, written and directed by my favorite misspelled Ryan: Rian Johnson. As always, we’ve watched the movie and used the Storyclock Notebook to visualize the story in the form of a clock. The game is afoot!
Let's Break It Down
- Opening: The Thrombey Estate in all of its majestic, slow-motion glory. Something dramatic has and will happen here.
- Normalcy: Harlan Thrombey has died. Is it suicide? Or is it… murder? Marta lives with her mom and sister in a small apartment.
- Normalcy Disrupted: Marta is invited to the Thrombey house. She arrives and the whole family is there. Lt. Elliot, Trooper Wagner, and a mysterious detective named Benoit Blanc are there to investigate Harlan’s death.
- Herald: Blanc questions Marta about the night of Harlan’s death.
- Acceptance/Break into Act 2: We see what actually happened -- Marta accidentally gives Harlan the wrong medicine. He gives her a plan and kills himself. Instead of telling Blanc the full truth, she gives him fragments of it and follows Harlan’s plan, setting the film in motion.
- Trailer Moments/Promise of the Premise: Blanc invites Marta to The Detective Gang. The Detective Gang investigate the murder. Marta covers her tracks. Flashbacks to the party the night Harlan died. Ransom coming back home and bringing drama.
- Midpoint: The will reading -- it’s revealed that Harlan left everything to Marta. The family freaks out and Marta flees!
- Things Get Worse: The family plots how to get the inheritance from Marta. Blanc suspects foul play and has eliminated no suspects. Marta is threatened by Walt. Marta receives a blackmail letter with the top half of the toxicology report.
- Hero’s Last Resort: Marta and Ransom go to the medical examiner’s office to find it being burned down. Blanc spots them and a low-speed car chase occurs!
- Game Over: Marta and Ransom are caught. Ransom is taken into custody by the cops and Blanc rides with Marta. She stops at the blackmailer’s location to find Fran in a chair dying from a morphine overdose and calls 911.
- Breakthrough and Rebirth/Break Into Act 3: Marta can’t take the lies anymore and confesses to Blanc at the hospital.
- Hero Gains Upper Hand: Marta finds the extra toxicology report in Fran’s stash and gives it to Blanc. Right before she confesses the truth to the family, Blanc stops her. They go to the library where Blanc connects the dots, revealing that RANSOM is the killer. Blanc has a genius monologue about donuts and clears Marta of her guilt. Ransom confesses to the crime and to killing Fran. Marta projectile vomits on Ransom.
- Shadow's Final Push: Ransom has run out of f’s and goes knives out on Marta...
- Ultimate Breakthrough: ...with a prop knife. Ransom is arrested and Marta is cleared of her charges. Kindness wins.
- New Normalcy/Final Image: Marta stands on the balcony of her new house while the Thrombey family looks up at her from below. My House, My Rules, My Coffee!
- The fantastic My House, My Rules, My Coffee mug at the beginning and end of the film.
- Benoit Blanc’s introduction / Benoit Blanc finds out whodunnit
- Marta confessing (or partially confessing) to people in every quadrant of the clock
Subverting the Genre
Rian Johnson is a clever man. He routinely takes ideas and genres and flips them on their head, and he did no different with Knives Out. It’s a whodunit that reveals who dun it in the very first act. But it’s a twisted web that he doesn’t stop untangling from there.
Since we know what actually happened that night, Johnson is able to flip the script have us rooting for Marta to get away with the crime. Now we've got two opposing forces we're rooting for equally. The film becomes more of a thriller, and then, after the midpoint, back into a whodunnit, with the "mystery" pivoting to who hired Blanc and who is blackmailing Marta. It’s such an inventive way of interpreting the genre.
Playing It Straight
One thing I love about watching whodunits is looking for clues throughout the film that will help solve the mystery. You would imagine that a lot of the little clues in this movie would be written out intentionally, but in an interview with EW, Rian talked about how he tried to play it straight:
“You don’t need to plant red herrings! You don’t need to plant false pathways and clues. I found you can just play it very, very straight. The audience is going to lead us to things you never would’ve expected; they’ll do the heavy lifting for you in that regard. In that way, I tried to make a deft film with lots of information in it, but in truth, I tried to play it straight and serve the story, and leave the audience to misdirect themselves.”
Preserving The Surprise
I’m like, I don’t know, 7 watches into this movie already? My first viewing was magical, partly because the marketing was so incredibly smart. Marta is the protagonist of the film, but none of the trailers or TV spots told you that. My expectations were immediately shattered and I got to enjoy the movie free of my own assumptions. This has nothing to do with the script or structure, I just had to point it out. I know you’re reading this, big Hollywood businessman, and I demand you market more movies this way.
Considering The Reader (Not Just The Viewer)
By starting the film off with interviews of every living member of the Thrombey family (genius), Johnson is able to quickly establish the personalities and names (those title cards!) of the siblings and knock out a ton of exposition organically. Showing us the night Harlan died from each of their perspectives gives us a healthy taste of everyone's individual motives and desires.
This all blows by in a flash, but on Jeff Goldsmith's podcast, The Q&A, Rian joked that it felt like it dragged on forever on the page. Lt. Elliot's line, “let’s take a break,” was Rian assuring the reader that the interview scene was over, and thanking them for reading.
A Murder Mystery About Love And Kindness
I love that this story -- about a family of despicable people trying to solve the mystery of their father's murder -- is ultimately about love and kindness. In the end, those are the real reasons why Marta was victorious. #loveandkindness #myhousemyrulesmycoffee
Hatching The Plan
In January, Rian Johnson shared a page from his moleskin notebook where he drew his original outline of the film. He apparently uses this method to diagram the story of all of his films. Not everyone writes with such firmly established structure, but for many writers, outlines are the backbone of their script. If you’ve solved all of your story puzzles and perfected your outline, writing the script should, in theory, be quicker and easier (hahahahahahahahahaha) (but you get it).
Have mentioned it in a few writing-centric interviews, so I dug up my barely legible moleskin notebook outline for @KnivesOut. This is how I always diagram stuff out before I start writing. (Spoilers... I guess?) pic.twitter.com/AedSj1tf9O— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) January 15, 2020
When we clocked the final film in the round, it matched up almost perfectly to his outline. Things don't always work out this way (in fact, it's far more common for them not to), but it's an excellent example of building yourself a roadmap and sticking to it--
You can see where this is going--
If Rian Johnson can outline this movie in a regular notebook, imagine what he could have done with a Storyclock Notebook ugh gross this is the worst sentence I've ever typed.
But for real, if you've got an idea for a complex story with several moving parts, the Storyclock Notebook and Workbook are amazing resources for visually organizing your raw ideas into a structured roadmap for your first, second, or eightieth draft.
Long live Rian Johnson and his freakishly talented brain.