Movie Review: Knives Out

Rian Johnson, writer/director of Knives Out,
tells us what kind of film he’s made in the very first scene. It’s a scene that will seem familiar to
anyone who has ever seen or read a whodunnit. We’re introduced to the scene of the crime,
which will also be the story’s primary setting. It’s a huge old house on a wooded country
estate, its many rooms packed with antiques, art, and idiosyncratic ornaments obviously
collected over the course of a long lifetime. It’s morning. We see the housekeeper preparing breakfast,
pouring coffee, gathering everything together on a tray, carrying it upstairs to the master
bedroom. But when she gets there, the bed is empty. It hasn’t even been slept in. Her boss, the old man who owns this house,
is gone. This isn’t a surprise — we expected this. It’s the first scene of a murder mystery. We know what to expect. Rian Johnson knows that we know. He’s counting on it. What’s so clever and satisfying about that
first scene and the film as a whole, is that Johnson finds a way of both subverting our
expectations and meeting them head-on at the same time. The housekeeper climbs another set of stairs
to the attic study of the old man. She opens the door, and there he is, dead
on the couch, his throat cut, his blood all over the floor. Again, we’re not surprised. And again, we think we know what’s going
to happen next: the housekeeper is going to scream, or perhaps faint, and that tray of
breakfast is going to come crashing to the floor. But that’s not what happens. The housekeeper has the expected reaction
— shock — but she registers it not by dramatically dropping the tray and screaming
while the camera pushes in until we smash cut to the main title, but by muttering “Oh,
shit,” almost dropping the tray, fumbling to keep from dropping it, and that’s when
we cut to the main title. And I promise, that’s the last bit of this
film I’m going to spoil in this review. For the duration of Knives Out, Johnson stages
variations of the trick he pulls in that first scene, a trick executed with such confidence
that if you’re not a cynical self-proclaimed film critic who likes to compose his reviews
in his head while he’s watching the movie, it might not even register as a trick. But that’s what it is — it’s Rian Johnson
showing us that he’s familiar enough with the genre he’s working in to play it straight,
but smart enough to deconstruct that genre all along the way. Murder mysteries, like suspense stories, like
action movies, like romances, like jokes, rely on set-ups and pay-offs. Knives Out is full of so many set-ups and
pay-offs that it’s hard to keep track of them, particularly because with some of the
best ones you’re not even conscious of the set-up until you get the pay-off. I love when that happens. Johnson also gets that too much cleverness
can weigh a story down. He knows when to take everything apart, and
when to stay out of the way as the mechanisms of his ingenious machine do their work. And, as was also the case with The Last Jedi,
he demonstrates that sometimes the best way to subvert an expectation is to simply pay
off a set-up much earlier than we anticipated and leave us itching to find out what happens
next. That’s another trick he pulls several times
in Knives Out, always to delightful effect. That’s what this movie is: delightful. And it’s fun. That’s an important quality for a mystery
to have, I think. It’s why, despite the grim subject matter
it often deals in — deception, betrayal, violence, murder — the genre in general
feels so cozy. A good mystery doesn’t just coldly lay out
a puzzle and then present us the solution, nor does it gratuitously revel in the gory
details of the crime — it teases us, taunts us, challenges us to outsmart it as it tries
to outsmart us. As a storyteller, Johnson — who, as I mentioned
a moment ago, also wrote and directed the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes
Back a couple of years ago — knows that set-ups and pay-offs aren’t just to serve
the plot, but to serve characters as well. Much of the pleasure of Knives Out comes from
following its characters, learning their secrets, finding out just enough about their fears
and motivations to pique our curiosity, then sitting back and waiting for the other shoe
to drop. Let me spend a minute more talking about those
characters. I’ve been giving Rian Johnson all the credit
so far, and as the primary author of the film he deserves a good bit of credit, but he gets
a lot of help from his fantastic cast: Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, the Mr. Boddy
of the piece; Jamie Lee Curtis as his daughter Linda, Don Johnson as her husband Richard,
Chris Evans as their son Ransom; Michael Shannon as Harlan’s youngest son Walt; Toni Collette
as Joni, the widow of Harlan’s other son Neil, who is dead; Lakeith Stanfield and frequent
Rian Johnson collaborator Noah Segan as cops investigating Harlan’s death; Daniel Craig
as Benoit Blanc, the private detective also investigating Harlan’s death, and Ana de
Armas as Marta, Harlan’s caretaker and friend who finds herself at the center of all of
this. Quite a line-up. You might even say, a murderer’s row. That’s right, I wrote it, I said it, I’m
not sorry. Knives Out is a prime specimen of one of my
favorite kinds of movies: a send-up of a genre that is also an exemplar of that same genre. It’s the Galaxy Quest of whodunnits. If you’re a fan of Agatha Christie or Arthur
Conan Doyle, if you never missed an episode of Murder, She Wrote, you’ll catch the winks
and inside jokes and, if you’re anything like me, be tickled to death by them. But even without that genre familiarity, you
can enjoy the revelations of mysteries within mysteries, the double-crosses and reversals,
the surprises on top of surprises, and the ultimate thrill of finding out what really
happened. Because, for all its cleverness and flair,
what really makes Knives Out work, finally, is by the end, when it shows us the solution
to its mystery, we care about what that solution is. We’re invested not only in what happened
and what is happening, but what happens next.

28 thoughts on “Movie Review: Knives Out”

  1. I loved this film. It was a very competent whodunit. It was fun, hilarious, and intriguing. It did telegraph some things but I did miss some elements on first viewing and was pleasantly surprised by the ending. The casting could not have been more perfect. The casting director should be applauded.

  2. And now lets wait for the comments to ask you if you REALLY liked "The last Jedi" (oh my gooood… okay, i did too.)

    No, intresting review, guess i may watch it when it gets here next month ^^

  3. i was reading and comprehending the Sherlock Holmes Mysteries (published as it was intended to be written — with all the Olde English of the time period in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived) by the time i was 8 years old … i love me a good (well written) mystery!!

  4. The 'c' in Blanc should be silent in French. Unless of course Daniel Craig plays his Frenchman like Patrick Stewart did in Star Trek!

  5. I don't usually see movies in the theater unless its a big spaceship-explodem'up-super-punch movie (i figure I have a TV if I want to watch two-shots of people talking about their feelings), but your enthusiasm has convinced me to try to see this one, especially after finding out it was a Rian Johnson movie. I figure the guy who made the best Star Wars movie (so far) probably made a great murder mystery film too.

  6. Love your stuff… Hated “The Last Jedi” and will never forgive Rian Johnson for that movie. I will see this movie though.

  7. Your cadence and delivery on this review is not unlike that of Pete Rosenthal of the Onion's Film Standard.
    I just happen to know you're very likely not joking, though.

  8. Daniel Craig with a southern accent? Chris Evans playing something other than a superhero and with a foul mouth at that? And Jamie Lee Curtis?!? Hell, you had me at the SMPTE leader! Without doubt, a must see!

  9. i probably shouldn't have seen "knives out" the same weekend i had already watched the beautiful "jojo rabbit", strangely hilarious and thrilling "parasite", and a masterclass in storytelling "the irishman" because as awesome as i thought knives out was – all three of those movies were better. that's not a knock on knives out as much as an endorsement of how stacked the movie releases have been the past few weeks.

    rian johnson did hit it out of the park, though. after he derailed star wars i was interested to see if he'd go back to looper form or devolve like colin treverrow did post jurassic world (book of henry, anyone?). very happy to agree with you that johnson made a great film here. the performances are wonderful, the movie looks great, and the story is well told with a plot makes sense. last jedi had two of those three…

  10. Okay, I will bite. The Last Jedi is not a great film. It might be better than RotJ but it is not as good as Episode VII. I love all the interactions between Rey, Kylo and Luke but there is just so much messy garbage inbetween these great interactions. The good character moments in TLJ are better than the character moments in TFA and it has two amazing visuals. Could I have a single movie that combines the first half of TFA with the character development from TLJ and leaves out “first order” deathstar mark 3 and slow-mo chase?

  11. I saw it last night and it was really good. I like to describe it as like Clue but the mystery and comedy are equally well done. Instead of being mainly a comedy.

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