Release Date: November 27th, 2019
Director: Rian Johnson | MPAA Rating: PG-13 | LeavittLens Rating: 8.5/10
It seems clear in the opening minutes of Knives Out that the audience will
receive exactly the mystery they expect. A seemingly premature death of a
noteworthy millionaire. An eccentric cast of characters , many with their own
motives for murder (matched by a terrific acting ensemble, led by Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and more). A quiet and clever sleuth interrogating their every word and move. A mysterious old house seemingly modeled after a Clue board, a joke even the film makes reference to.
It is a hearkening back to a celebrated—and largely forgone—mystery genre, akin to the great Agatha Christie adaptations and Hitchcockian concoctions of classic cinema. Yet it is not simply the exceptional uses of such common tropes that elevate the film; it is the points at which it deviates from the formula and shatters audience expectations that make it the greatest whodunit to grace the silver screen this century.
That the film attempts to toy with typical genre conventions should come as
no surprise to any filmgoer familiar with Rian Johnson’s work. The writer-director is
known for taking common formulas and utilizing them as a vehicle to subvert
expectations or smuggle in more pertinent themes. This has worked well at times
(Brick, Looper), and in other instances has produced mixed results (The Brothers
Bloom, The Last Jedi), but it seems with Knives Out that he may have just found the
perfect genre to resurrect and reinvent.
The film opens with the passing of famed mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey
(Christopher Plummer) on the night of his 85th birthday party. He was surrounded
by family that evening, and while the death is officially ruled a suicide by the police,
famed detective Benoit Blac—played by Daniel Craig, resurrecting a Southern drawl akin to the one he used in Logan Lucky—has been anonymously summoned via letter to investigate. Interviews progress per the common template, proceeding through the family members individually and revealing their many dysfunctions and flaws. The final interview is conducted with Harlan’s caretaker Marta Cabrera (played affectively by rising star Ana de Armas), a nurse from an immigrant family that serves as a stark contrast to the excessive wealth of the Thrombeys.
From here the typical whodunit would proceed by inviting the audience to
investigate and project an answer to the mystery alongside the lovable detective,
but Johnson is far from typical. He instead drops numerous seemingly premature
reveals, often reserved for the final dramatic reenactment, ultimately usurping the very structure we presumed he was using. This proves a remarkable sleight of hand: in a genre filled with tropes and predictable structure, we find a new and fresh take whose structure actually adds intrigue for the audience. The audience is no longer able to predict or rely on a particular structure to guide their watching; they are forced into actually wading into unknown territory themselves. With this new formula, a not-so-subtle commentary on class and immigration finds its way into the film, adding to its relevancy for our epoch. The result is a film that at once meets expectations and shatters them; it is both of a bygone Hollywood era and entirely new. Knives Out is a fresh classic, thoughtful in its structure and convicting in its themes, sure to make you a sleuth of meaning as much as a sleuth of murder.