Knives Out Movie Review
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.