Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Knives Out

Film Review: Knives Out

Knives Out (2019; Directed by Rian Johnson)

Rian Johnson’s fantastically entertaining neo-whodunit Knives Out had a release date, likely by happenstance, that closely coincided with the final Sequel Trilogy Star Wars movie The Rise of Skywalker, the follow-up to his excellent yet contentious The Last Jedi. Release-slate coincidences aside, this conjunction is highly illustrative. While lesser filmmakers (greatly constrained by circumstances, expectations, and corporate oversight, but still lesser) tripped over the furniture in the dark to revise and undo all of the good work that he did with the space adventure franchise, what does Johnson do? Only more good work.

Knives Out sees Johnson return to the detective genre of his 2005 feature film debut, Brick. But while that striking film transposed the look, mood, language, characters, and themes of pre-war hardboiled detective noirs from writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler into a contemporary American high school, Knives Out is a fiendishly clever, masterfully crafted homage to the intricately-plotted murder mysteries of Agatha Christie (along with a clear nod or two to one of the fathers of the genre, Arthur Conan Doyle). The film has been labelled a subversion of that species of mystery fiction, but it’s more of an elevation and a broadening of the possibilities of those generic elements and the kind of cinematic frame that contains them. It’s also a political parable about Trump-era America, and a purely delightful crowd-pleaser. I saw it too late to find a spot for it on my list of the Top 10 Films of last year, but rest assured, it would find a place high on that ranking.

Knives Out revolves around the death of renowned, wealthy bestselling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) in his large, rambling, wood-paneled house somewhere in the Eastern United States. With his grasping, bickering family bustling around in the week between his funeral, memorial, and will reading, a police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) and state trooper (Noah Segan) question the family members regarding the murky circumstances of the imperious old man’s death, which is judged a suicide but also lies under shadows of doubt. This doubt is also probed with idiosyncratic fitfulness by a private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who was anonymously contracted to look into Harlan’s death with an eye towards possible murder.

Through interrogations with Blanc and the police that link up with flashback scenes, the characters of the family members and the finer details of the night of Harlan’s death (also the night of his 85th birthday party) are laid out. Harlan’s cane-wielding son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs his father’s publishing company, and is frustrated at being stifled by the old man when it comes to potentially lucrative screen adaptation rights. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) runs her own company, alongside her reactionary, slightly dim, blustering husband Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson); their Large Adult Son Ransom (Chris Evans, who makes a great prick, it must be said) is an arrogantly entitled trust-fund shitheel and the roundly despised black sheep of the clan, although Harlan sees him as a bit of a kindred spirit. Joni (Toni Collette) is the new-age liberal widow of a deceased son of Harlan’s and has her own skincare company. Her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) is into political progressivism and attends a liberal-arts college on Harlan’s dime; she clashes with the Drysdales’ groomed, always-online teenaged son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), whom she labels an “alt-right troll” and a “literal Nazi” while he needles her about her pursuit of a “SJW degree”.

Also about are Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), Harlan’s housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson), his unquantifiably ancient mother (K Callan), and his young Latina nurse and confidant Marta Cabrera (the excellent Ana de Armas). Marta, who the Thrombey/Drysdale pack speaks about as “part of the family”, is particularly key to the whole affair. She was the last person to be with Harlan in his upstairs room prior to his death and therefore almost certainly knows more about its shady details than anyone else, and is also of unimpeachably good character: she has a violently physiological reaction to dishonesty, vomiting instantly if she tells a lie. She also figures centrally in what Blanc suspects to be Harlan Thrombey’s plans with regards to his inheritance to his backbiting family circle, which may have precipitated foul play.

Saying anything more about the elaborate set of clues and revelations layered impeccably into Knives Out’s plot by Johnson (who writes as well as directs) would be an act of cruelty. Like the Agatha Christie stories that provide the film’s inspiration (Brad Gullickson identifies three in particular that Johnson singled out as creative catalysts for Film School Rejects), Knives Out seeds every pertinent part to the mystery’s resolution before the whole is revealed. Like all good mystery stories, the clues are all there to be fitted together to solve the puzzle. Also like all good mystery stories, few if any readers/viewers will fill in every detail, will fail to match every clue to its proper important place in the narrative of the crime. It is the author that is the ultimate arbiter, the cleverest boy (or girl) in the room, who dazzles with the revelation of the superior wit of their complex mystery machine’s construction, but rather than insult the intelligence of an audience that cannot aspire to such cleverness themselves, delights them with the dramatic unveiling of that clockwork complexity and flatters their attentive eye to even the smallest clue, when that clue’s significance becomes vital. A good mystery story makes you feel smart even while comprehensively outsmarting you, but you not only don’t mind, you love it and can’t wait to consume another story just like it. It’s an elegant knife’s edge balance, and it’s little wonder that the writers who pull it off with any consistency become immortals.

Rian Johnson is a writer/director deeply suited to this kind of genre narrative. He’s always been a clever visual storyteller; maybe too clever for his own good, his critics might bemoan. This was an under-noticed element of the roiling backlash to The Last Jedi online, where the most implacable negative critical energy towards his deconstructionist Star Wars came from mostly male internet communities and elements of the franchise fanbase known for toxic masculinity, reactionary politics, and outsized conceptions of their own superior intellect and knowledge. These sorts of fans were not going to take kindly to a filmmaker with a strong voice (and clear leftist politics, as well) like Johnson demonstrating not only that he was smarter than they were and understood Star Wars better than they did (well enough to take it apart and put it back together again, before their eyes), but that he knew it and had no qualms about making certain that they knew it as well. Rian Johnson’s films make you feel smart while comprehensively outsmarting you, but when he did that with Star Wars, the most popular film series in history, a lot of people didn’t appreciate it like mystery fans might have, and on this level, perhaps you can’t entirely blame them.

But this tendency makes Johnson an ideal match for an intricately-plotted, geographically-fixed murder mystery full of colourful, antagonistic characters/suspects to be solved by an eccentric but insightful detective. Because he’s so very clever, Johnson also drops semi-meta references to the literary genre throughout Knives Out, although mostly as witty background and shrugging misdirection. One of the family members notes that the convoluted circumstances of Harlan Thrombey’s death resemble the plots of his whodunnit novels, and Segan’s Trooper Wagner is a superfan whose role is mostly to recognize similarities with details of the stories. Blanc expands the referential scope, referring to Marta as the Watson to his Sherlock Holmes on a couple of occasions. This self-reflexivity situates Knives Out in the history of the genre but otherwise doesn’t particular lead anywhere, except maybe to deductive dead ends in the minds of astute genre-savvy viewers who assume that the master mystery author has planned out his own murder and its aftermath (I will only say that it isn’t that, but it also isn’t not that).

But Rian Johnson is not only a clever and hypercompent writer, he’s a clever and hypercompetent filmmaker. Knives Out is so greatly entertaining to watch largely because Johnson employs a wide array of tools and tricks of editing, cinematography, lighting, production design, sound design and editing, music, and, of course, acting to convey the intricacy of the mystery’s details, the nature of his characters, the drama and action of sequences, and to drop interpretive breadcrumbs for amateur sleuths in the dark theatre. Characters’ faces are lit in intentionally suggestive ways, music selections both diegetic and non-diegetic suggest mood as well as function as further clues (listen for Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” in a key scene, with its germane line “You better take care / if I find you been creeping ‘around my back stairs”), editing emphasizes certain details (check how Johnson’s editor Bob Ducsay cuts to the dull foreboding thump of Walt’s cane on the floor as he threatens blackmail against Marta) and cheekily undermines others with juxtapositional humour (Linda calling out the presumptive arrogance of the police thinking she is dim enough to be goaded into talking shit about the rest of the family, with a hard cut to Richard gladly taking the bait), and props and set details encode hints and meanings (I was sure to note Marta’s framing next to a neo-Gothic painted window of a medieval apothecary, an anticipation of her role in Harlan’s fate). Johnson could have made Knives Out in a direct, workmanlike manner and its screenplay and acting would have made it more than above average. But he makes it with artistic and technical virtuosity and stylisitic flourishes, using every piece of film craft at his disposal to heighten every moment, and this makes Knives Out a delightful triumph.

The victory lap of that triumph is Blanc’s climactic cracking of the case, a sequence tying together all of the strands in a manner satisfying, dramatic, and surprisingly funny. Craig, who is spectacularly good in a role with an eye to a post-Bond future (Johnson says he already has a sequel planned out, and I am very down for a Benoit Blanc Cinematic Universe), commences the sequence of the revelation of the solution (which of course I won’t get into here) with a hilariously digressive metaphor about donut holes, and leans into his outrageous Southern accent (I assume Blanc is supposed to be Cajun from the French name, but I’m not sure you can tell it from his speech) in big laugh lines like “A Nazi child masturbatin’ in the bathroom!” Among the criticisms that haters of The Last Jedi lobbed at Johnson was his use of clever, even “modern” humour in otherwise tonally dramatic scenes, but this sequence shows an unerring control of the mechanisms of tension and release that recognizes that comedy is not the enemy of suspense or drama but can work with them and punch them up with judicious and calibrated use.

The highlight prop of the film’s design figures centrally in this scene: a sunburst arrangement of mounted knives with their tips pointed inward to a open circle (see the still to the right), a blade-sharp visualization of Blanc’s metaphor for the mystery as a donut with a hole in it (and an inversion of the film’s title, seeing as these knives are oriented in). Characters are posed in frame on a couple of occasions with their heads in front of the hole (the establishing interviews take place in front of the piece earlier in the film, but Johnson is careful not to frame any of the interviewed characters this way at that point), the knives acting as a metallic accusatory halo, and Johnson and his cinematographer Steve Yedlin zoom dramatically along the surface of the display up to Blanc’s face for a critical line. And finally, this artistic aggregation of knives dramatically fulfills its Chekhov’s gun purpose, although with a inverted punchline redolent of Johnson’s wit and humour (watch the first and last shots of the film’s closely for another such comic inversion).

For a film so unerringly sharp in all other ways, Knives Out‘s aforementioned political subtext is stunningly blunt. Harlan’s family falls into a contentious political discussion whose clear context is the Trump presidency and its polarized dichotomies, albeit without naming names. They all think of themselves as winners, self-made individualist job-creators or savvy business people or enlightened tolerant liberals or smarter-than-thou smug alt-right “ironic” nationalists (Johnson learned a thing or two about those types from The Last Jedi backlash). But each one was made by what Harlan gave them, and selfishly, arrogantly pretend otherwise in ego-stroking self-aggrandizement. In contrast to the bickering, spoiled Thrombeys, Marta is hardworking, humble, diligent, and of course extremely honest, and yet vulnerable in way they are not, as a young Hispanic woman with an undocumented immigrant mother. The Thrombeys profess to like and respect her in variant ways, but it’s a running joke that her home country in identified differently by every one of them, and her outsider status and family legal concerns are wielded as weapons against her when the situation turns against them. It’s hardly subtle, but Knives Out is not only a tremendously clever and thunderously entertaining elevation of the whodunnit but also a sharp-edged parable for the resentful, threatened white privilege at the dark, inequitous heart of Trump-era America.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: