Two years ago, Rian Johnson directed Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, arguably the most polarizing film in the entire saga. Some loved it, others hated it. As for me personally, I rated it as my #10 film of 2017 in one of the first ever posts I wrote on this blog. I wasn’t crazy about the run time, and I could definitely have done without Rose and Space Vegas, but on the whole, I really dug the film as a continuation of the story, and I really liked how Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver played off one another.
But no matter what side of the fence you fall on as far as the film’s overall quality, the one thing that can’t be denied is that Johnson made that movie with one of the brassiest sets of balls in modern-day Hollywood. Whether you liked the film or not, you have to admit that he made some very bold choices, subverted expectations both for the series and the sci-fi genre itself throughout, and even had the audacity to make letting go of nostalgia the main meta theme of the entire flick.
It is that same penchant for turning tradition on its ear that pervades his latest feature, Knives Out, a modern take on the classic “whodunit” that pretty much dispenses with the “who” right away, leaning much more into the “why,” “how,” and “what” of the mystery. Anchored by a stupendous ensemble cast that is beyond game for anything and everything the script asks of them, and filmed in one of the most lively sets imaginable, Johnson will hopefully have no problem getting audiences universally on his side this time.
The day after the 85th birthday party for famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), the old man is found dead in his upstairs study, his throat slit. Initially ruled a suicide, Harlan’s family and staff are called to his mansion before the will reading in order to answer a few more questions, observed by private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, soon to be free of James Bond forever). Through a series of interviews with Harlan’s delightfully one-dimensional relatives (including Toni Collette as a ditzy daughter-in-law, Chris Evans as a lazy grandson, Michael Shannon as the doting son looking to expand the family business, Jamie Lee Curtis as his independently wealthy daughter, and Don Johnson as a cheating son-in-law), it’s clear that basically everyone in the family had a financial motive to kill Harlan, and they’re all looking for someone to blame.
The one wild card of the bunch is Marta (Ana de Armas from Blade Runner 2049), Harlan’s nurse, caretaker, and confidant. Everyone treats her as part of the family, though they also make a fine distinction between what constitutes “real” family once the will is read. They also use the fact that her mother is an undocumented immigrant (in one of the film’s best running gags, every member of the Thrombey clan thinks she comes from a different Latin American country) as leverage when they all start turning on one another. The big thing with her is that she gets physically ill at dishonesty. She literally cannot tell a lie without throwing up. This pays some tremendous dividends down the line, both for story and comedy beats.
Again, Rian Johnson likes throwing a middle finger to genre conventions, and as such, the manner of Harlan’s death is revealed before we even hit the midway point of the movie. What really matters is why he died, not how, and as things come to a head, the prospect of a common enemy galvanizes the family, regardless of motive, sin, or in the case of the two teenage members (Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell), sycophantic political allegiances.
From top to bottom, this is the best ensemble cast of any film this year. Every single one of them plays their role to the hilt, leaning so far in to their whodunit archetypes that they might as well be horizontal. Toni Collette is the best of the bunch, followed closely by Craig, who despite his French name has such a down home countrified accent that he might as well be the new voice of Foghorn Leghorn. Between this and the tremendous Logan Lucky from a couple years ago, he’s proving himself to be a top notch character actor as well as a leading man, and I for one can’t wait to see what he does when he’s completely emancipated from 007.
In addition to the other great elements – hilarious screenplay, expert cinematography, sound design that’s germane to the unfolding plot – there’s one aspect that bears mention more than any other, and that is the production design. The Thrombey mansion is truly a living set. Every room has a purpose, and the connectivity is key to the twists and turns of the story. More importantly, each room is dressed to the nines with a multitude of intriguing props, noted through exposition that every room is themed after one of Harlan’s best-sellers. The centerpiece is the open parlor with its own reverse Iron Throne, a chair with a back wall filled to the brim with knives, all pointing at the head of the seat. It’s an amazing set piece that draws your eyes immediately and helps set the stage for the murder mystery farce that plays out on the screen. The collective sets are so full of in-jokes and Easter eggs that it would take multiple viewings (plus some annotated YouTube videos) to catch them all. It all works to perfection, to the point that I will be actively pissed off if the film doesn’t at least get an Oscar nomination in the category.
As I mentioned in my review of The Good Liar, the litmus test for a good mystery is how much we in the audience get to play along, and how satisfying the reveal is once it happens, whether we guessed right or not. Where that film failed horribly, this one succeeds in spades. All the characters have reason to commit a heinous crime, which helps us get invested in the game. Even when the actual death is explained, we still have fun trying to figure out where we go from there, leading to a very good conclusion. The sharpness of the writing, the elaborate sets, and of course the fully committed performances of the entire cast keep us on the edge of our seats throughout, delivering a tour de force parody of a whodunit that ends up being the best whodunit in years.
Rian Johnson loves playing with expectations and fucking with his audiences. For my part, I give full affirmative consent!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next! What’s the best subversion of conventional genre you’ve seen lately? How is the idea of Americans playing Go the only unbelievable part of the film? Let me know!
10 thoughts on “Slashing Throats and Genre Conventions – Knives Out”
Implicit spoilers ahead….
Loved the film, but felt that the Whodunnit of it all was diminished by the huge and mostly underused ensemble. There were so many suspects that I was able to predict the real guilty party simply by the disproportionate screen time / story weight. The nature of the killing didn’t help either as it necessarily put a lot of running time and exposition on Marta rather than the real suspects. But still a fantastic, clever and genuinely funny story, and every actor made the most of any minute they had on screen.
Wholeheartedly agree. I do wish the mystery was hidden a bit better, and the actors given more equal time (I mean, Don Johnson? Nash fucking Bridges? Even he gave a great performance!), but I was having too much fun with the ride to really mind all that much.