Knives Out is the long and eagerly awaited murder mystery/thriller from Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson. With a huge ensemble cast and a twisty, but not unpredictable plot, it is at the very least an enjoyable film.
Murder mysteries may not be as common as super hero movies or science fiction adventures these days, but they have been fairly common through the history of cinema. Much like participating in a murder mystery party, or seeing a similar-themed play, the idea which makes these types of films successful is audience involvement. While watching a murder mystery, you are actively trying to use the clues to solve the central question of the film - who committed the crime?
Knives Out is therefore the latest in a long line of films with similar motivations and investigations. Look back on the latest versions of this sub-genre and you will find that they all seem to be somewhat similar (Murder on the Orient Express, Gone Girl, Prisoners, Wind River) - they all have big names in the cast and are directed by well-known directors. Murder mysteries attract this type of talent because they are effective. They have a clear purpose, audiences understand that purpose, and they deliver on their premise. It isn’t easy to be disappointed. Knives Out follows in these footsteps.
The premise of Knives Out seems familiar as well. A wealthy family is celebrating their patriarch’s 85th birthday, when they wake up to find that he has committed suicide. The police are convinced that it was suicide, but a private detective named Beniot Blanc is not - only because he was given an unmarked envelope full of cash and asked to find out the truth. Blanc questions everyone in the family, looking for clues, and they all seem to have a potential motivation to have killed their father/father-in-law/grandfather. Central to the investigation is a nurse who cared for the elderly patriarch but also has a convenient inability to tell lies.
What makes Knives Out unique is that it basically shows the audience what happened early on. So the mystery becomes not so much about the death, but about the involvement of Blanc in the first place. You see, the man who died is actually a mystery writer. And as the events unfold, the twists and turns come to resemble one of his books which made him famous and rich in the first place. It is just one of many odd, yet strangely charming elements of this film. There are many things which are off-putting, and when you think more about it, shouldn’t be possible. In essence, Knives Out has many unreal, almost fantastical qualities.
That isn’t to say the film is not grounded in reality, only that it uses unlikely occurrences to diverge from audience expectations. A mark of any good murder mystery. However, the script isn’t completely infallible. To begin with, the answers to many of the film’s central questions are not that difficult to figure out early on. What keeps the films intriguing is how it comes to those conclusions in its own terms. Along the way we kick up stones with juicy details underneath which add more context. Unfortunately, all of this does not rescue the writing from its lack of character development. Besides the character which the film focuses on the most (I’ll keep it secret here), none of the others turn out to be any different than your first impression.
The family patriarch (Harlan Thrombey), portrayed with zeal by Christopher Plummer, is another exception. Although he dies, obviously, we get to learn more and more about him as the resulting investigation proceeds. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Thrombey’s eldest daughter, Linda, and Don Johnson her husband, Richard. Linda is straight forward, direct. Richard isn’t afraid of expressing himself either. Their son, Ransom, shares those traits as well, and occupies the role of spoiled brat. Michael Shannon plays Walt, Harlan’s son who he has put in charge of his publishing company, and has a business-like mind. The middle daughter is Joni, played by Toni Collette. Joni prides herself in being “free-spirited”, but is just as judgemental and cagey as everyone else.
The central theme of everyone in this family is greed. They are all hypocrites, pretending to care about this or that - but when it all shakes out, they only care about one thing. Having these characters does give the murder mystery plot more juice. It is easier to believe any of them could be the culprit. They also form the fuel for the powder keg which is lit by Harlan himself when he demonstrates that he can see right through their charades. By calling out their shallowness, it only seems to make them more desperate. But as the film twists and turns, these people stay stubbornly fixed. They don’t offer many surprises. Even when the film gives them the opportunity to do something redeeming, they don’t.
Director Rian Johnson is fresh off the controversy of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and so of course we can expect an abnormally high amount of scrutiny towards this film. If anything, the film seems consistent with his previous output, I would say feeling more similar in tone to Brick and The Brother’s Bloom, than the serious mind-warping of Looper or the grandiose storytelling that comes with a Star Wars film. Knives Out tries to be more quaint, but with an all-star cast, the advertising making sure you know who is the director, and the film’s carefully manicured plot, it feels big.
Johnson helps to keep the film from becoming unwieldy by picking and choosing where to focus the audience’s attention. This isn’t a film where so much is happening you have to be able to comb through it with a magnifying glass in order to figure it out. Johnson shows you what you need to know front and center. It makes for a film that is an enjoyable watch. Your experience ends with the credits, rather than becoming something you have to take in and then contemplate afterwards to comprehend. The script has a witty element to it, and Johnson is able to really bring that out through his direction. Cuts to characters in key moments maintains the deliberate and purposeful momentum of the film, his use of pans and zooms adds drama and flair.
Knives Out is a just-complicated enough, just-dark enough, just-believable enough thriller geared towards both avid movieholics and casual movie-goers. The premise is as you may expect, the plot unfolds like any other murder mystery, and the execution is top-notch. Maybe the twists aren’t all that shocking, but the film is unique in that it lets the audience in on some of its secrets early on - rather than waiting until the final chapter to spill all the beans. This does make it a bit predictable, but allows the script to travel down a road that is a bit less traveled. Knives Out is a prefect example of why murder mysteries continue to be popular.
What's Bad: Most of the character's are one-dimensional, not exactly unpredictable.