DVD Review: Knives Out
(SPOILER WARNING: Major plot points will be discussed here.)
Knives Out is a movie I wanted to love but wound up only kind of liking. On paper, it’s exactly my kind of entertainment. Harlan Thrombey, a famous mystery writer, has died mysteriously, his elaborately designed and decorated house is full of suspects, and a colorful private detective is on the case. It’s got all the ingredients to be one of my favorite films of the year. Certainly a great many of my social media connections who are also mystery fans adore this movie. People are even running out and buying sweaters in a style worn by one suspect. Why am I not so enthusiastic about the film?
I should start by mentioning the things I did really enjoy about the film. The central performances are all really strong, most notably Daniel Craig as the detective Benoit Blanc. I’ve seen Craig in numerous productions, including British television miniseries, Saturday Night Live, and of course the James Bond franchise, and this is the first time I’ve ever had the sense that he’s actually having fun playing a role. Indeed, in every scene there’s a twinkle in his eye and the corners of his lips twitch as if he’s straining his face muscles preventing himself from grinning ear to ear. Craig seems to be having the time of his life, and the enthusiasm radiates throughout the movie, whether he’s questioning a suspect or belting out a Sondheim tune.
I also have to say I appreciated how the movie avoided the old “the official police resent the private eye’s interference before finally realizing they couldn’t solve the case without him” trope. In Knives Out, the official police basically just let Blanc do whatever he wants and allow him to run the investigation.
Also notable is Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey, who treats his own looming demise as one of his own mystery plots. (I couldn’t help but wonder, though. Surely an expert in crime fiction and movies like Harlan Thrombey would know that altering your will and promising disinheritance is pretty much the equivalent of putting a hit out on yourself in every mystery ever.) Ana de Armas is really good as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s nurse, who we can trust implicitly because she has a rare condition where deviation from the truth causes her to become violently ill. The Vomit of Veracity proves to be a critical plot point.
Another treat for devoted mystery fans is all the references to the mysteries of the past, from the movie poster font that is based on classic Agatha Christie paperbacks to the Clue-themed end credits. The knick-knacks filling the mansion, the dialogue, and even the soundtrack contain references to classic crime fiction. There are more Easter eggs in this movie than on the White House lawn in spring.
It’s clear that this movie was made with genuine affection for the genre. It’s paying homage, not trying to mock what came before it or present itself as superior to earlier films of this sort. Yet for all of its knowledge of the genre, there are a few missteps in the execution that prevent it from completely soaring.
One problem is that a proper whodunit ought to be solvable by the audience. Pacing is critical, as the viewer ought to be able to observe and digest clues without getting bored by a lull in the action. The pacing in Knives Out is uneven. A couple of important clues make the solution way too obvious (as does a thorough understanding of character tropes). Other clues are rattled off in easy-to-miss dialogue, and a frantic car chase midway through the film keeps the casual fan too overwhelmed with action and information to process the clues properly. However, as I will discuss later, the most revealing clues are blatantly over-obvious.
Furthermore, the narrative imposes restrictions on characterization that hamper several of the supporting performances. As a rule of thumb, I argue that a whodunit movie must be very careful to make its cast of characters interesting. The viewer should want to get to know even the nasty ones better simply because they are intriguing. When crafting characters, the screenwriter ought to ask, “Would the members of the audience want to have lunch with this character if they were darned sure that the character wouldn’t poison their food?”
Ultimately, there’s a dual problem with likability here. Most of the members of the Thrombey family are portrayed so negatively that their characterization actually serves as a spoiler, as the comeuppance is preordained from the movie’s first act. It’s quite all right to have some really loathsome characters that the viewer wants to see murdered, arrested, or at least humiliated– that’s all part of the fun. But in a comedy, it helps to have the awfulness played in a lighter way, or developed in a way that allows the actors to have fun with the characters’ flaws. In Knives Out, unpleasantness becomes most of the suspects’ defining characteristic, which prevents some fine actors, especially Jamie Lee Curtis, from displaying their natural charisma.
A parallel issue comes from the portrayal of the victim. Christopher Plummer brings charm and magnetism to his role of the dead man. He’s very likeable, which is a problem in a mystery-comedy. To keep a movie light, a murder victim has to be either loathsome or a one-dimensional character who exists solely to die. (Think of the movie Clue, where two victims only have one or so lines, another only has a minute of screen time and no jokes, and another is a total jerk). Once we get to know Harlan Thrombey, he’s warm and has an intriguing mind, and it’s a shame he’s dead. (SPOILERS FOLLOW!) Two critical problems with his characterization are that I simply didn’t buy his blasé reaction to his own impeding demise, and I thought his approach to parenting and grandparenting needs a ton of work. I’m definitely not taking the side of the extended Thrombey family, but when the patriarch of the family realizes that his loved ones haven’t turned out the way he wants them to, shouldn’t he make an effort to make them better people, rather than play games, manipulate, fire, and disinherit them? When looking carefully at the script, Harlan seems to try to shape his family’s future through control and tough love, but an actual attempt at showing love might have done more to make the Thrombeys more virtuous than withdrawing financial assistance. When a man would rather flush away his believed last few precious moments on Earth than attempt to reconcile with his children and try to set them on the right path, there’s something horribly wrong with his priorities. (END OF SPOILERS.)
Several commentators have debated whether Knives Out is expressly political. There’s a brief, pointed political discussion amongst family members midway through the film, but my sole complaint comes with the use of thematic and quasi-political plot tropes– from the beginning, I saw the direction the narrative was going, and when one realizes that the screenwriter/director Rian Johnson isn’t going to “subvert expectations” with portrayals of class and latent prejudice and karmic comeuppance, the main story arc is clearly spelled out early in the movie. I’m reminded of countless episodes of Law & Order: SVU, where a military man or a member of the clergy or a prominent member of the high school abstinence society was introduced, and I knew after their first lines that they would turn out to be rapists or murderers or both. Invariably, I was proven right by episode’s end. Knives Out suffers from the same problem: predictability.
In a whodunit, it’s critical for the viewer to be able to have a fair shot at deducing the identity of the killer after watching the majority of the film and observing all the clues. It’s a critical flaw when the use of a trope or an over-obvious clue (such as the ones used to identify the killer). When watching Knives Out, I kept predicting what was going to happen next so often that I started wondering, if this whole mystery reviewing thing doesn’t work out, that I might have a shot at a career as a psychic. Long before the subject of an inheritance was mentioned, I knew exactly that there’d be a will subplot and who the big beneficiary would be. I was able to guess dark secrets (that guy looked like a cheater to me!), the actions certain characters would take, and even upcoming lines of dialogue. Early in the movie, I had a hunch that one of the characters would quote a line from the musical Hamilton in reference to another character… and imagine my lack of surprise when by golly, that exact line was quoted. Maybe I’ve just read and watched too many mysteries, but my entire viewing experience was marred by the fact that I knew most of what was coming in the movie long before those events occurred on-screen.
For all its shortcomings (at least in my view), Knives Out is a diverting mystery with a terrific cast and a clear love for crime fiction and movies. While Knives Out failed to delight me as much as it has many of my friends and fellow mystery fans, I wouldn’t mind seeing Craig reprise his role of Blanc in future installments, as long as the film features a much more subtle and difficult puzzle to solve.
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment