Knives Out Review: Mystery for the Modern Age

by Ben Bellevue

The knives may be out, but these two thumbs are way up!

Rian Johnson is my favorite modern director. I feel that’s a stipulation that I have to get out of the way before delving into why, precisely, I love his latest masterpiece. Now, to be fair, I don’t believe my love for Rian Johnson influences my opinion of Knives Out (if anything my opinion of Knives Out influences my love for Rian Johnson), but it still can’t be denied that I’ve been a passionate fan of his work for a long time. The Last Jedi is my favorite Star Wars movie. He directed two of my favorite episodes of Breaking Bad: Ozymandias and Fly. Even his earliest work, Brick – which I like but don’t love – utilizes not only Johnson’s masterful use of space but his ability to bend old ideas into something fresh. So yeah, Rian Johnson is my favorite director currently working, and Knives Out is a perfect encapsulation of why.

The Master of Expectations

I’ve yet to go into a Rian Johnson movie and get the story I expected. Knives Out is no exception. It’s a movie that presents you with one thing and then uses that to lead you in a wildly different direction. As a genre that depends on mystery and twists, this basically leaves the foundation of Knives Out tailor-made for Rian Johnson. Perhaps it’s no surprise that his first film, Brick, also centered around a mystery.

I’m not here to say that “subverting expectations” is an inherently good thing, because it’s not; however, when it’s done well subverting expectations allows us to reframe our cultural lexicon. It allows us to examine old ideas through a modern lens. The murder mystery was once a major facet of storytelling. Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle dominated popular literature, but that time has passed. Crime mysteries have been relegated, mostly, to the confines of network cop shows. This isn’t inherently bad, as excellent work has come from television mysteries (True Detective and Sherlock to name a few), but the once great genre certainly seemed a dying breed. After all, in the age of the internet, in the age when cameras are everywhere, how mysterious can something really be?

Breaking the Puzzle Box

A mystery can only surprise you once.

This is the great obstacle for anyone trying to pen a mystery. Once the puzzlebox is solved, once the audience knows where each piece fits, then what do you have? Some stories get by on just being engaging for that first experience. The puzzle is intricate, you struggle to figure it out, and once it reveals its pieces you think “wow, what a ride… never need to watch that again.” And that’s fine. Those work.

To my mind, however, the best mysteries are never about the mysteries. They’re about the characters. As Johnson himself says while talking about the influence of Agatha Christie: “I always keep coming back to Christie because of her love of character.” This isn’t a revolutionary idea, as the concept certainly applies to other genres too. Ready or Not, for example, is a fun horror/thriller about surviving your significant-others deranged family. Get Out, on the other hand, is considered an exceptional horror/thriller in part due to using a very similar scenario but through a lens that has a lot more to say.

Knives Out has a good mystery, but it isn’t about the mystery. It’s about our victim, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), and his legacy; how his actions and his relationships have shaped the people closest to him – particularly in regards to his money. This is a movie about privilege, how it shapes us, and most importantly how difficult it can be to control. In Harlan we don’t see a cruel patriarch obsessed with money, as we so often see when presented with the eccentric family of a wealthy man, but instead a seemingly caring man who wants to do right by his family. 

Most stories about wealth treat money as a choice; i.e. “if the father had just spent more time with his kids and less time focused on money it’d be okay.” The flaw in the Thrombey family, though, has nothing to do with Harlan and everything to do with the money. These people vary in vast ways. Where one character started their own business (with Harlan’s financial assistance), another just works for Harlan. Where one grandchild is a liberal arts college leftist, another is described as an “alt-righter.” What unites these people, though, is their privilege, the comfort that comes with it, and the fear the possibility of losing it inspires. These are not people tainted by an absentee parent, but by the privilege of a parent who simply had too much and couldn’t help giving that to his kids.

Of course, not every character is the family. The movie features phenomenal performances by Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield and, most importantly, Ana de Armas as the film’s protagonist: Marta Cabrera.

Power in Femininity

Brought into the family through her work as Harlan’s nurse and caregiver, Marta is everything the family isn’t. Where they come from wealth and privilege, she’s an immigrant sharing a small home with her mom and sister. Where their first priority is their own well-being, she cares more about others. Where they are manipulative and deceitful, she’s unable to lie.

In looking at Rian Johnson’s most recent works, there’s a developing trend towards femininity. The Last Jedi was, in part, about women correcting the mistakes men make in conforming to the traditional ideals of masculinity. These men, in turn, must learn how to break away from the ideals they’ve built themselves on. 

Marta is a strong character, but not in the sense we often think of as strong. She’s not a badass who can fight off attackers, she doesn’t hold in her emotions, and she doesn’t win by overpowering someone. 

The most telling, and least spoilery, manifestation of this is in how she plays Go (the Chinese strategy game) with Harlan – describing her often victorious strategy as “just wanting to make beautiful patterns.” It’s a strategy that makes her not just a better Go player than Harlan, but a better Go player than anyone else in the family – and she does it by focusing on beauty and love.

Often, I would argue, our world values the masculine over the feminine. This isn’t to say masculine traits are wrong (or that they’re inherent to men), but as we’ve been raised in a male-dominated society where men were taught these were the traits that are valuable, we’ve had a tendency to reject the feminine traits: compassion, caring, and honesty. We view victory as a result of who’s the strongest? Who’s the smartest?

Knives Out presents an alternative, however. Sometimes it isn’t about your brains, or your brawn. Sometimes what you need is a little femininity, a little heart.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

  • I read a manga about Go a lot as a kid and I’m glad to see it being focused on in a major US movie.
  • The music in this film is fantastic. I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write this.
  • It’s exciting to think that Chris Evans and Daniel Craig are freer to do whatever they want now. If their performances here are anything to go by, it’s going to be fun.
  • I love mid-budget character movies a ton and in the era of blockbusters or indies GOD is it a breath of fresh air.

Closing Thoughts

It’s hard to talk about exactly why I think Knives Out is such a masterpiece without delving into spoilers. Going into Knives Out, I expected a fun ensemble whodunnit that explored some whacky aristocratic characters. There are elements of that present, but the narrative Johnson has crafted is much deeper than that. He masterfully creates a picture of how we wield our privilege and power. He blends what we expect from the genre with an entirely new contextualization. It’s brilliant, and it leaves me wishing we could clone Rian Johnson because I’m now left wanting him to get his Star Wars trilogy, but also write more whodunnits featuring Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, but also make something entirely new.

Final Score

10 / 10

That Phenomenal Film

  • A powerhouse cast delivers great performances
  • Focus on unique characters pushes it beyond simply being a clever whodunnit
  • Not just a mystery in the modern day, but for the modern day
  • Would’ve enjoyed a couple more scenes of the family all bouncing off each other but that wasn’t the story being told so it’s fine. They’re just great.

That Nerdy Site’s Review Scoring rubric can be found here.

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