Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is surely one of the most twisty-turny whodunnits ever filmed, but it rests on a foundational event so shaky that it’s hard to go along with anything that comes after. It’s an impressive movie in many ways, dizzyingly complex and intensely brainy, but if you don’t buy into the complex plot and its many (MANY) twists, they tend to be more tiresome than exhilarating. It’s a loving, labyrinthine homage to a genre I’m not sure deserves it.
In the grand tradition of Clue, Agatha Christie, Murder She Wrote etc. (most of which will be referenced directly or obliquely throughout the film), Knives Out begins with a big house, a dead body, and a cast of suspects. The body belongs to Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy writer of mystery novels whose entire family has congregated in his Escher-esque old mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday. The housekeeper (played by the incomparable Edi Patterson from Righteous Gemstones) wakes up to find Harlan dead in the study with a slashed throat, and soon two detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) plus a famous private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, doing a bad Southern accent again) arrive to try to piece together what happened the night before.
Who killed the old man? Who hired Foghorn Teahorn? During the course of their interviews, the cops discover that everyone in this overstuffed cast seems to have a motive, from Harlan’s son, Walt, who wanted to license movie adaptations (Michael Shannon) against the old man’s objections, to his lifestyle brand-launching daughter in law who’d been bilking him (Toni Collette) to his grandson who was about to have his allowance cut (Chris Evans) — plus like six other family members that I’m not going to take the time to list here. Suffice it to say, a cast of enjoyable actors are all stuffed into flashcard-sized roles where they sort of have to shout to be heard. Which creates this constant, white noise-esque drone of overacting.
There’s also Harlan’s South American nurse, Marta (Ana De Armas), who the Thrombeys constantly tell she’s “part of the family” even as their failure to correctly identify her nationality becomes a running joke. She’s also so naturally honest that she vomits every time she tells a lie, which makes her a useful narrator (though a dubious choice, as one of the weaker actors, to do the heaviest lifting). Between the race dynamic and the dynastic wealth, Knives Out is obviously trying to do some politics here. There are fights about Trump’s immigration policies and a grandson (Jaeden Martell) who we’re told is an “alt-right troll.” But it all feels more like Johnson is sprinkling buzzwords rather than exploring privilege — especially compared to all the movies and shows this year that explored it so well (Parasite, Succession, Schitt’s Creek, Ready Or Not). It’s the kind of “we’re doing politics!” allusions that make you mentally prepare for the promo tour.
Johnson’s goal, however, seems to be escapism more than satire, for a particular kind of viewer conversant in the marginalia of the Angela Lansbury extended universe. For me, escapism requires more consistency than Knives Out provides. There’s a key plot point involving a drug that not only stretches credulity, but seems to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how drugs work. Shouldn’t I just get past that one plot point and enjoy the rest of the movie? In a different movie, perhaps. But Knives Out isn’t some compelling drama based on interesting, fully sketched characters, it’s a whodunnit populated by a series of types. About whom we’re told just enough to keep the plot moving forward. It’s a Rube Goldberg machine. That a plot this complicated could actually track is 90% of the trick. If one of the steps in the machine is just a title card that says “MAGICAL THINKING”, the whole thing becomes a lot less compelling.
This failure to assuage natural disbelief is especially surprising coming from Rian Johnson, the filmmaker who gave us one of the all-time most succinct permission-to-suspend-disbelief lines, in Looper: “I don’t want to talk about time travel, we’d be here all day, making diagrams with straws!”
Without that kind of consistency, Knives Out turns into the Famous Actor Fun Time Mugging Hour(s). Maybe I should just skip any movie where Daniel Craig does a Southern accent from now on? Clearly, the genre being attempted here was not my cup of tea. I’ll give Rian Johnson this though: “Benoit Blanc” and “Harlan Thrombey” are great mystery character names.