Knives Out by Rian Johnson (2019)

Lead Image via Amazon.com (Amazon Associates link)

Before the virus, my friends recommended that I go see Knives Out. However, my town essentially shut down the day I was going to see it, so I had to wait some time to watch it on demand with my family at home. But Jesus Mary Christ was it worth the wait.

Now, I know everyone is already raving about this movie. So I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but just in case you haven’t heard: Knives Out is now tied for my favorite movie of all time. Yes, of all time.

I always worry about hearing hype for a movie or book, because I don’t want to be disappointed while watching/reading it. I worried that Knives Out would have this issue, but I enjoyed it far more than my friends made it out to be (Unfortunately, now that I’ve effectively called it my all-time favorite, I’ve increased the likelihood this will actually happen to you. But you should see it, anyway!).

Because Knives Out is a whodunit murder mystery, most of the appeal lies in spoilers. I’ll split this review into a spoiler and non-spoiler section, with the second alluding to what I found appealing and what you might find appealing, as well.

Entertainment: 5/5

Intellect: 3/5

+1 for genre-breaking

No Spoilers:

Knives Out centers around the alleged suicide by knife of famous mystery author Harlan Thrombey on the night of his 85th birthday party. A private detective, Benoit Blanc, appears at Harlan’s house and begins questioning all the people who were present the night of the party. He claims that someone sent him a newspaper clipping of Harlan’s death announcement and some money in order to investigate suspected foul play. Typical set-up, right? Well, despite the normal premise, the movie very quickly veers off the tracks, adopts a completely different plot, and then gets right back onto the tracks before the finale. It is not a classic whodunit in any sense of the word: in addition to figuring out who did done it, we also have to figure out what the crime was in the first place. The way the suspects’ answers are presented is not typical, the who becomes our protagonist/Watson and why is not typical, and the structure of the plot most certainly is not typical. Knives Out is not just becoming popular because it’s a tough mystery, but because it’s an unusual mystery.

I can’t say too much else about the plot without spoiling anything, but there’s plenty of other things to enjoy. First of all, the jokes are hilarious. My family is still making references to the running gags, and there wasn’t any point in the movie where we thought things were too intense or where a joke didn’t land. Second of all, the characters are very memorable. It doesn’t take long to remember who’s who (Except I kept forgetting the housekeeper for some reason. I still don’t remember her name.), and it’s easy to imagine the structure of the Thrombey family tree in your mind. Thirdly, the movie’s mystery avoids one thing that always vexes me: it doesn’t deny you any pieces of evidence. Everything the detective knows, you know or can figure out with a little bit of help. I hate mysteries that rely on withholding key pieces of information, but I admire mysteries that can give you all the pieces and yet still leave you stumped.

But, like I said, this is not your typical mystery:

Spoilers:

I gave Knives Out a point for genre-breaking because the movie very quickly differentiates itself from other murder mysteries. Around the beginning of the movie, you may notice something odd: as the suspects tell their versions of the story, we actually see the scenes they’re describing. Normally, we’re left on our own, without visual aid, to guess at whether or not a particular suspect is telling the truth. If a reenactment of the scene is provided, then we assume some of the retelling is fictional. But we very quickly see that this is not the case: the movie is actually showing us what happened that night. For instance, Linda and her husband Richard are shown asleep in bed at night, with Linda hearing various people climb the stairs to Harlan’s study. We see very clearly that her husband stays with her in bed. We then see very clearly that Joni actually does ask Harlan and Marta what the loud thump she heard was. We see whether or not the people are lying.

Ok, fair enough. Maybe the mystery lies in what the scenes don’t show, as opposed to what they do show? Well, then the movie shows us exactly how Harlan died: his nurse, Marta, accidentally switches his medicines (after Harlan knocked them to the floor) and overdoses him with enough morphine to kill him in 10 minutes. Harlan says he does not fear death and decides to slit his own throat so that Marta, who was well-meaning, would not be blamed for killing him.

So, wait, no one murdered him? He actually did kill himself? Well, guess what? Now, the plot of the movie is that we’re following Marta and rooting for detective Blanc to not find out about the morphine overdose so that she isn’t blamed for his death. We now know exactly how Harlan died and are now rooting for the person who accidentally killed him. For a while, the movie follows Marta as detective Blanc steadily finds more and more evidence of foul play and gets closer and closer to figuring her out: Marta tries to hide or destroy footprints she left behind, a videotape showing her returning to the house later under Harlan’s instructions, and a piece of the trellis from outside Harlan’s window, which Marta climbed. She gets into deeper and deeper water as it turns out (to even her own surprise) that Harlan left his entire estate, company, copyrights, and inheritance to Marta; her “friend” Meg confesses to the rest of the family that Marta’s family is undocumented and in the country illegally; and the laboratory where the detective had sent Harlan’s bloodwork (suspecting poisoning) is suddenly burned to the ground.

But the mystery isn’t gone completely at this point, because there’s still something missing: who hired detective Blanc? This question was bothering me the entire time. I personally suspected that Harlan himself had set this entire thing up, as he was a famous mystery writer and people throughout the movie kept comparing the situation to “something he himself would write.” Perhaps he wanted to test his family members to see who would become an asshole when they found out they were written out of the will? Was this a test to see if Marta would come clean and tell the truth about what happened? Was detective Blanc even a detective, or just an actor?

Well, it turned out none of those things are true, because it next becomes clear that someone (somehow) knows that Marta accidentally OD’d her boss and is now blackmailing her, as her new inheritance will disappear if she’s found guilty of his murder, in accordance with the slayer rule (an understandable rule). Anyone in the family would have motive to blackmail her, because they’ve all just been cut out of his inheritance. Not only that, but the housekeeper turns up dying (also of a morphine overdose) when Marta goes to the appointed blackmail location, so now there actually is someone dying due to a slayer. Instead of getting the fuck out of dodge and hiding the evidence, Marta gives the housekeeper CPR and calls an ambulance for her, effectively ratting herself out to detective Bland in order to save her coworker’s life.

Let’s review: this went from murder mystery to rooting for the murderer not getting caught to figuring out who is murdering in order to blackmail the murderer. All clear? Excellent. Let’s continue.

Finally, detective Blanc puts it all together and figures out who the blackmailer/murderer is, and things go back to the normal whodunit format after that. All the pieces suddenly make sense, Marta holds up a fuck-you mug to this clusterfuck of a spoiled-rotten family, and the moral is that Marta succeeded because she was a kind person who tried to save her friend’s life instead of giving into fear and blackmail.

In all honestly, I feel out-of-breath after having written all of that. I’m left wondering if this murder mystery was written off the prompt “write a whodunit where the victim actually did commit suicide” or the prompt “write a whodunit where we root for the murderer to not get caught” or the prompt “write a whodunit where we instantly see exactly who did done it, but it has to still be interesting.”

Overall:

I feel like I could watch Knives Out ten times and not get bored of it, both because of noticing little details I hadn’t seen before and because of just how funny and likable I found it. Even the characters who I would hate to know in real life were fun to watch on screen, and the running jokes will probably only get funnier with each rewatch. I highly recommend Knives Out, whether or not you love the traditional murder mystery format. And now that we’re all in quarantine, it’s the best time to watch it on demand!


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