Knives Out (2019)

A twisty whodunit that finally finds use for Rian Johnson’s compulsive need for subversion – with classism undertones, (suspiciously)-storied yet uncapitalized Evans & de Armas-led cast, & sharp violin score. Mixed mystery thriller. 6/10.

Plot Synopsis: When a crime novelist dies just after his 85th birthday, an inquisitive detective arrives at his estate to investigate. He soon sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise.

*Possible spoilers ahead*

Review

The Man Who Broke Star Wars Is Back

This Time In A Genre That Should Be A Perfect Fit For His *Compulsive* Need For Subversion

The Man Who Broke Star Wars. Rian Johnson spawned a veritable firestorm of outrage and stunned faces when he decided to (for some reason) take the biggest sci-fi franchise of All-Time – and throw away everything built over 40+ years for sensationalist nonsense and subversion without purpose, simply for subversion’s sake – if you can even call spitting in the face of original lore ‘subversion’. What was originally inked as an entire *trilogy* of new Star Wars films under R.J.’s directions was instantly retconned into his immediate expulsion from the franchise altogether – and his new project (by no coincidence released less than a month before the next Star Wars film) is here: Knives Out. A classic genre of mystery thrillers & detective-hatted/magnifying glass-laden whodunits, wherein twisty tales & unpredictability is rewarded and virtuous, this seemed like a perfect filmic marriage on paper, right? Well.. I hope the genre had a pre-nup. A twisty whodunit that finally finds some use for Rian Johnson’s compulsive need for subversion, Knives Out is an entertaining yet mixed mystery-thriller – with classism undertones, a (suspiciously)-storied yet uncapitalized-on Evans & de Armas-led cast, politicization, problematic finale, & violin orchestral score as sharp as its title.

A Family Birthday Party Gone Awry

The film opens into a grim (somewhat-meek) murder revelation before the family of deceased legendary author Harlan Thrombey is called back into question for their whereabouts after the events of his 85th birthday party the night before. We’re startled by crisp violin aggressions and a theme as sharp as K.O.’s title as the owner of this palatial red-bricked countryside mansion’s final hours are methodically reconstructed at the crime scene by famed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) and his associates. The score by Nathan Johnson is phenomenal – traversing everything from classically-mysterious flute whirls and soaring orchestrated melodies feeling straight out the archives of classic genre entries to new flair in its string sequences that add some bite amidst all the tonal wonder. We’re introduced to the members of this idiosyncratic canvas of high dysfunction & old-money wealth with fine characterization and development – as well as an orchestral accompaniment fully absolved of any blame for the aspects hereafter.

A (Suspiciously)-Storied Cast Of A-Listers *Bizarrely* Uncapitalized On

The cast of Knives Out is absolutely *insane.* I cannot fathom why so many legendary heavy-hitters & A-listers signed up to do this film – Rian Johnson was a fine, if mid-tier director before Last Jedi, but is now in arguably the most contested, controversial, blacklisted place a director of modern film has ever been of memory. But there they are – and this mystery thriller certainly has no lack of star-power (more like being blasted by a cannon): Jamie Lee Curtis, Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer,.. and the list goes on. This might be the most unconscionably, (almost-suspiciously) stacked cast a detective film has ever seen – which should make for the easiest home run ever if simply balanced in proportion. Sadly & inexplicably though, they’re not – Evans and de Armas steal the show with sensational cat and mouse interplay and performances of their respective careers as the web of deceit unfurls while Craig is undoubtedly Bond-ly as Blanc, but the rest of the cast feel like high-paid cameos in a film that doesn’t even know what to do with them. They’re given so few lines or things to do, it’s almost pointless to have them there and a *complete* waste of their prodigious talents; so maddening, it lingers on your mind a more-enticing mystery than the actual whodunit. One cannot help but mourn the poor, superior films they each could have been diverting time to instead of being here – like R.J.’s subversive motif – without purpose, just to be here. Hey, at least they look nice for their single-digit lines – thanks to Jenny Eagan’s stunning costume design again absolved of any malign.

A Political Ad Or Mystery Thriller?

The film detours into bizarrely-aggressive political discourse multiple times throughout the middle & first acts as well – with everything tossed around from ‘alt-right trolls’ to ‘liberal snowflakes’ to SJW’s to feminist superiority-complexing to entire conversations about Trump’s immigration policies it doesn’t even seem like it bothers Johnson or the screenwriters. These are wildly controversial topics and off-topic diversions completely extraneous to the plot taking you out of the story and genre’s escapist draw and flow – again indicative of an problematic trend in Hollywood shoehorning political checklists (I even agree with leaning-left) no one asked for into what should be entertainment people from all walks of life can go to and turn off the debates and problems around them for 2 hours. No one wants to feel they’re being lectured or sold a political-ad/virtue signal by a multi-national corporation with no actual interest in the cause beyond faking ‘woke’ to sell more tickets for shareholders’ third vacation homes – a point modern Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand, for a reason as inexplicable as its constant inclusion. We already live in a Trump-U.S. we have to hear debated and controversy-mongered around us every day – we don’t need more of it in films too.

Classism Undertones & A Clever Discourse On The Power And Corruptibility Of Wealth, As Well As The (Selective)-American Dream

The best part of Knives Out is its classism undertones & discourse about the power and corruptibility of money – as well as the (selective)-American Dream. Framing the story through an immigrant working-class Nurse’s lens in antithesis of the bonkers-rich family she works for is brilliant. Taking a look back on his life near the end, patriarch and literary magnate of the family Thrombey realizes he’s ruined his surviving legacy by spawning spoiled brats unable to survive or thrive without his silver spoons feeding them – so he decides to do something drastic: give it all away. The family thinks Marta beneath them originally due to her blue-collar, foreign upbringings – and themselves above everyone else in opposition because of their family name and (not-so) guaranteed inheritance, saying a lot on the outlook of the wealthiest 1% and haves-vs-have-nots dynamic. The amusing reversal of fortunes at the will-reading leads into a new reality wherein the immigrant and blue-collar employee becomes the superior, sending everyone into a frenzy kickstarting the most entertaining part of the Knives Out: dirty money games and pressured high-power tactics by everyone clawing over each other to get their paws on Midas’ gold. The Thrombeys and Drysons are already rotted to the core morally: willing to kill, stab, & threaten even innocent bystanders in this chess match to regain their “birthright”, but even Marta begins to act shadily after the novelty and shock starts to fade – making an intriguing point about the corruptibility of money and temptation she eventually rejects, only for fate to reward her pureness of heart. The final shot brings the classism dynamic back full-circle flipped by the literal juxtaposition of Marta now at a higher physical level & vantage point looking down on the family below for a smart dosage of (non-abrasive/controversial) social commentary and humanism amidst all the mystery thrills.

The (Problematic) Finale

For someone who has made a name (whether that be bad or good) off subverting expectations – the finale almost underwhelms on subversion. While Chris Evans does wonders as a villain in sharp contrast to his blue boy scout Captain America – showcasing impressive range going opposite-spectrum douchebag bro Ransom – did anyone really not believe his complicity? I mean, even his name gives it away – let alone his demeanor, characterization, motive crime scene-overinterest in constant fascination with footprints/mud, and giveaways throughout the flick you don’t have to be freaking Benoit Blanc to piece together. The reveal was disappointing – it’s like the real subversion was our expectations of subversion, convincing ourselves the most obvious culprit in the history of mystery cinema must not be it. And that begs to question: if we were supposed to psych our own selves out, what did we need R.J. for? The final explanation is riddled with plot holes so large they could sink a tank as well. If Marta gave Harlan the correct medicine, why even slit his own throat? She mentions multiple side effects and warning precursors to death physiologically – why wouldn’t Thrombey wait for those as sure-fire signs before taking the final irreversible step to end everything, plus set off a chain of events that almost 99% of the time wouldn’t have worked in real life to wipe Marta’s slate clean of suspicion? The whole schtick about puking when lying is laughably convenient writing and plot-force that feels almost cheating by mystery genre standards and the finale overall incredibly messy – soiling what could’ve been a better whodunit, if someone else – literally *anyone* else – did it.

Conclusion

Far From Agatha Christie: A Mixed Mystery Thriller As Jumbled As Marta’s Medicine Bag

Far from Agatha Christie, Knives Out is an original yet gnarled mystery thriller as jumbled as Marta’s medicine bag. A twisty whodunit that finally finds some use for Rian Johnson’s compulsive need for subversion, Knives Out is an entertaining but mixed mystery-thriller – with classism undertones, a (suspiciously)-storied yet uncapitalized-on Evans & de Armas-led cast, politicization, problematic finale, & violin orchestral score as sharp as its title. It might not be Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, Se7en, or Silence Of The Lambs surely – but hey: at least it’s not Last Jedi either.

Official CLC Score: 6/10