Rian Johnson is creating a reputation for playing with a genre’s expectations. He deeply infuriated the Star Wars fanbase with his bold Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017) and has moved on to the fading murder-mystery genre with Knives Out (2019).
Knives Out feels like the proper film adaptation of the boardgame “Clue.” The wealthy mystery-writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his mansion on the eve of his birthday party. His numerous family at the party is suspect, and the renowned detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on the scene to solve the case.
The film is clearly self-aware of its genre and in doing so relishes its clichés. Thrombey’s mansion is replete with all sorts of sculptures and objects that one would expect in a Look-and-Find book – leading viewers eyes to scour each scene as much as Blanc. Johnson is smart, however, not to fall into the mold of a Mel Brooks satire, and instead deconstructs the format of his film. It is not a spoiler to say that the mystery is in fact solved in the first 20 minutes, at least for the viewers. The focus of the film is instead in the awareness and conflict that the knowledge of the truth has on the characters. That’s not to say that Knives Out doesn’t have twists of its own, Johnson is able to find a good balance between delivering a fresh structure as well as maintaining a satisfying familiarity.
Knives Out was also surprisingly a more political film than one would expect. The main character of the film is Marta (Ana de Armas) Thrombey’s wide-eyed nurse, who is incapable of lying without puking (yes, you read that right). However, it is Marta’s backstory of Hispanic origin that proves to be at the crux of the film’s plot. There is a constant presence and exclusion of Marta based on her heritage – the family members frequently confuse her as “Paraguayan,” “Ecuadorian,” “Brazilian,” etc. and completely ignore the fact that she was born in the United States. Chatter from flashbacks to the birthday party show the conservative and liberal sides of the family arguing over recent US immigration actions (“children in cages” “it’s the parents’ fault”). The overarching theme of the film is one of inheritance and rights to a home, and in that sense the entire meaning of the film and its title changes from one of a tongue-in-cheek commentary of the mystery genre, to one of the selfishness and greedy inhumanity in the world today.
Johnson should also be singled out for being able to balance his film incredibly not just in tones (it is a great comedy), but also with the character development of its sprawling cast. Johnson was able to wrangle A-list performers ranging from the aforementioned Craig, Armas, and Plummer to Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Colette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Katherine Langford, and Lakeith Stanfield. All characters are given only two or three scenes to truly shine, and yet the performers’ ability and the expert direction make all the characters stand out as distinctive and real to viewers. Armas is deserved of a particular mention as she carries the audience through a mixture of guilt and morality that is enough to tear a decisive viewer apart. Plummer also is incredible with only one significant scene in which he is able to bring weight to the tragedy of his character’s death.
In the end, Knives Out proved to meet the expectations of an entertaining tongue-in-cheek mystery thriller, but also dove much deeper than any audience member would have demanded, thankfully reaping fruits from its risk. The end result is a film whose political message, and fun at delivering it, is a perfect storm, sweeping endearing storytelling with a poignant perspective of humanity today.