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Non-Review Review: Knives Out

Knives Out is a sharp and point “whodunnit” for the post-truth era.

The most obvious point of reference for Knives Out is the work of Agatha Christie, although the film itself includes allusions to CSI, Murder, She Wrote and other generic procedural television show. There is a mysterious death inside a luxurious mansion, with a wealthy family who seemed ready to tear themselves apart even before the loss of their patriarch. An outside investigator finds himself drawn to the case, which begins to unravel as he follows each of threads back towards something resembling the truth.

Drawing a Blanc.

The beauty of Knives Out lies in the way in which writer and director Rian Johnson takes the familiar framework of a mystery story and allows it to descend into anarchy. Knives Out is constantly twisting and turning, zigging and zagging. Nothing is ever what it appears to be, and as more evidence comes to light it seems like nobody has any real idea of where the truth actual lies – including both the dogged private investigator trying to fashion order from chaos and even the killer themselves. Knives Out often feels like a wry, clever thriller about how nobody knows nothing.

In other words, Knives Out is the perfect murder mystery for this particular moment, in every possible way. This extends beyond the films obvious topical allusions and central themes, and is even woven into the manner in which the story unfolds.

To coin a phrase…

Note: This review will contain (or even allude to) very basic spoilers for Knives Out. Nothing too big or too specific. However, if you don’t want to be spoiled and are just here for the headline: Go see it. Then come back and read the review, if you want.

Obviously, it is very easy to spoil a mystery story like this. Even if this wasn’t a spoiler-phobic age, it would be bad form to discuss the plot of Knives Out in any real depth. The film focuses on the reported suicide of acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey. As his family gathers to read the will, private detective Benoit Blanc inserts himself into the narrative. Blanc received a large sum of money from an anonymous source, and a press clipping drawing his attention to the murder. “I suspect foul play,” he grudgingly concedes, when pressed.

Knives Out introduces the familiar elements of these classic “whodunnit” caper. As Blanc works his way through the family, he discovers a whole host of potential motivations for murder, bordering on the banal; blackmail, adultery, extortion, fraud, resentment. Everybody has a motive for wanting Harlan dead. The challenge lies in whittling down the list of potential suspects in order to provide a clear accounting of what happened. “I have eliminated no suspects,” Blanc admits after the first few days of investigation, as much to his own frustration as to the assembled family.

However, for those familiar with Johnson’s approach to storytelling, it gives away very little to reveal that Knives Out takes several large twists and turns on its path to the climax. Johnson is a writer and director who assumes a solid level of media literacy from his audience, and often sets up familiar genre elements in order to cannily interrogate them or play with them. His early work leaned into juxtaposition, with Brick blending hardboiled noir with schoolhouse melodrama and Looper switching from a time-travel narrative to an exploration of responsibility.

Knives Out does something slightly different, feeling very much like an extension of Johnson’s approach to genre in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. The film hinges on the audience’s understanding of the template of the classic murder mystery, and then uses that knowledge in order to broach more ambitious and more provocative questions. Knives Out plays with the structures and conventions of the genre in order to get at bigger ideas.

Knife to see you.

To be clear, this not a radical concept. Johnson is not reinventing the wheel here. After all, Agatha Christie’s most famous story – Murder on the Orient Express – is arguably interested in a similar interrogation of the underlying assumptions of a murder mystery. However, Johnson approaches the topic with an engaging energy and as a lens through which he might examine much more ambitious ideas.

Most obviously, the entire murder mystery genre hinges on the idea of absolute truth. It is a game of discovery. At the start of these narratives, only one person already knows the entire story; the killer. The other characters must cleverly eliminate impossibilities to expose that singular truth. Solving a mystery is often a game played with the audience; can the viewer or the reader identify that version of the truth before the characters reach the end of the narrative?

Knives Out eschews that idea of truth. It deliberately and cleverly diffuses the notion of a singular narrative. The audience is repeatedly made party to details obscured from other characters. The story is structured in such a way that the audience seems to constantly be ahead of Blanc. “You’re not a very good detective,” remarks one character as they hand him a piece of paper that will supposedly tie up the case in a neat bow. Indeed, Knives Out appears to offer one definitive of what happened on that night early on, completely upending the genre’s narrative conventions.

However, it very quickly becomes clear that even this seemingly complete accounting of events is not the whole truth. It does not account for every variable or possibility. As the film unfolds further, and other accounts are layered on top of those revelations, it increasingly seems like there is no singular truth. Instead, there is only chaos. Individuals act in their own interests, but without an awareness or understanding of the other forces at play, causing desired outcomes to collide like Go pieces scattered across an attic floor.

Biting off more than he can chew.

At its core, Knives Out understands that these sorts of stories – these mysteries and these riddles – are about the imposition of narrative on an unstructured world, the construction of systems and frameworks around an arbitrary universe. Blanc has absolute faith in his ability to construct such a narrative by drawing a straight line from cause to effect, following what he describes as “gravity’s rainbow” and waiting for the truth to land at his feet. However, Knives Out suggests that truth does not move along a predetermined trajectory.

This a cause of frustration to Blanc, who seems to almost unravel as the case refuses to cohere from him. Even from the outset, Blanc struggles to impose himself on the narrative. He sits in the background as Lieutenant Elliot asks the questions, only sounding a discordant note when he needs to refocus the conversation. He promises to be an almost spectral presence, a remote observer of the household. Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni mispronounces his name as “Blank.”

Blanc can trace the outline of the case. He can see the rough shape of what he has. However, there is “a hole at the centre of it, like a donut.” Of course, Blanc is smart enough to deduce the shape of the absent evidence from the hole that it leaves, but there are an absence even within that – “another donut.” Blanc finds that the case has holes within holes within holes, making it impossible for him to fully account for anything. Knives Out suggests that it is donuts all the way down.

The central question at the heart of any murder mystery tends to be some variation on the question “who benefits?” With Knives Out, Johnson takes that basic question and turns it against the genre. Knives Out repeatedly asks who benefits from these narratives, these structures, these systems. If these sorts of mysteries are about determining and identifying truth, then do they favour a certain version of the truth?

Where there’s a will, there’s probably a murderer.

Knives Out returns time and time again to the analogy of the game. Harlan plays Go with his nurse Marta and his grandson Ransom. “This whole house is like a Clue board,” remarks Lieutenant Elliott of the situation. He is not exaggerating; the family estate is full of decoy windows and hidden pathways, concealed compartments and elaborate facades. Touring the property, Trooper Wagner points out that Harlan has populated the house with elements from his own stories. He literally lives within a world that he has created, a narrative that he has constructed for himself.

Whoever sets the game controls the rules. The film is bookended with shots of a mug that boasts, “My house, my rules.” This is the central philosophy of the world that Harlan has built for himself. His doting daughter Linda explains that the only way to really communicate with Harlan was to find a game to play with him, and to play within the rules. Of course, Harlan was so wealthy and so powerful that those rules inevitably bent towards him. Harlan might not be the strongest Go player in the household, but he can always throw the board when the game doesn’t go his way.

Much like The Last Jedi used the familiar templates of epic science-fiction and fantasy to ask questions about the assumptions underpinning those, Knives Out uses the metaphor of rules and structures to ask who exactly is favoured by those. Knives Out is not exactly subtle in its political commentary. Marta originates from a South American country, although Harlan’s family can never remember which one exactly. As much as they repeatedly claim that she is “part of the family” and that each one of them wanted her at Harlan’s funeral, there is something disingenuous there.

Events spill over during a heated political debate. The name “Trump” is never mentioned, but it doesn’t have to be. Harlan’s son-in-law Richard and daughter-in-law Donna rail against immigration, but – they insist – only the illegal kind. Dragging Marta into the middle of the conversation, Richard insists that he welcomes those immigrants who play by the rules and know their place. Again, this turns out to be true only in the most technical of senses. The family have the “resources” to ensure that the rules will always favour them.

“You win or you kill.”

Knives Out even alludes to this reality in its set design. Harlan’s study includes a chair circled by an intricate set of knives. It serves not only as a visual allusion to the title of the film, but it also recalls a particularly iconic piece of twenty-first century pop culture. Johnson shoots that chair so as to evoke the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, another relatively recent piece of popular culture about the rules and systems that exist in order to protect and preserve the wealthy. Game of Thrones argued that “you win or you die”, and it often seems like Harlan’s family would agree.

Harlan’s family trust that their patriarch’s house will always belong to them, even if they have done nothing to actually earn it. Ransom passionately defends his right to his “ancestral home”, only for Blanc to point out that Harlan actually bought the house from a Pakistani real estate agent. The family are convinced that the house will always be theirs, that it will remain in the family, and that they will long continue to reap the benefits of Harlan’s success long after he has gone.

“I’m a self-made woman,” Linda boasts early in the film, even while waiting for her share of the estate. Ransom punctures that fantasy by pointing out that it is very easy to be a self-made individual when financed by a “million-dollar start-up loan” from a wealthy parent. Knives Out filters one of the classic American anxieties through the prism of the murder mystery genre. Like The Shining, this is a film rooted in the anxiety that the power and privilege enjoyed by white Americans has not been earned, and that the country may one day remind them of that fact.

Knives Out obliquely taps into fears of demographic displacement, anxieties about shifting political and economic influence, concerns about eroding social privilege. It is a compelling snapshot of life in modern America. It is a biting and powerful piece of contemporary political commentary, wrapped up in the trappings of a familiar narrative template. Knives Out opens with a possible murder, but the real horror at the heart of the film is that one day those in positions of privilege might wake up to find that the rules have changed and their place has shifted.

Captain Trump’s America.

Of course, this makes Knives Out seem a lot more heavy-handed and serious than it is. Knives Out is a blast. Johnson is having a remarkable amount of fun within the genre that he is playing. Johnson isn’t just picking at the underlying assumptions of the framework, he is also building a spectacular example of it. The biggest issue with The Last Jedi was pacing, but Knives Out moves at a million miles an hour. The film is snappy and brisk, jumping from one great moment to the next. Johnson never hesitates, trusting the audience to follow his narrative as it weaves and bends.

It is also remarkably assured, with Johnson demonstrating a commendable amount of tonal control of the film. Knives Out constantly pivots, from thriller to character drama to outright comedy, often within the space of a handful of lines. Knives Out is wryly observed and cannily constructed. It helps that Johnson has brought together an impressive cast of actors, and asked them to play characters who are mentally limber. It would be too much to insist that all of the characters in Knives Out are smart, but they are sharp.

More than that, Johnson cannily manipulates and manoeuvres the audience’s sympathy. There are moments when Knives Out asks the audience to root for a potential murderer to outwit the authorities and to evade the long arm of the law. It’s an old narrative trick in stories like this, with the sequence in which Norman tries to dispose of the car in Psycho serving as perhaps the most obvious example. However, Johnson uses this narrative trick to a thematic purpose, inviting the audience to wonder at the gulf that exists between legal crime and moral wrong.

Indeed, without giving anything away, Johnson’s resolution to the movie’s central mystery is a delight. Johnson clearly appreciates the tightrope that most mysteries must walk, playing with a savvy audience that has grown up with decades of experience in solving these sorts of puzzles. Johnson understands that the audience are not idiots, and so should be able to intuit certain elements of the overarching narrative. Johnson also understands that there’s nothing more frustrating than a movie where a shrewd audience reaches their conclusion before the film does.

Marta’s Law.

As such, Johnson splits the difference in a remarkable ambitious way. The basic plot of Knives Out plays fair with the audience. A canny viewer should be able to follow along with the mystery and deduce some of the key elements of the story. However, the plot takes so many twists and turns that it seems highly unlikely that any individual viewer will figure out the entire mystery on first watch. The result is a film that manages to be internally consistent without feeling predictable. Johnson strikes a fine balance.

The result is a brisk and playful movie that works both as a fine hyperkinetic example of the genre and as a larger piece of commentary on contemporary culture. More than that, Knives Out manages that fine balance of being both fun and clever, trusting its audience to keep up with it as it twists and turns without ever letting them get too far ahead. Knives Out is quite possibly the most fun that an audience will have at the cinema this year.

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