After fabulously leaving the Star Wars fandom in flames with The Last Jedi (a blockbuster so complex and thematically rich, it actually inspired me to start writing about movies!), modern genre film icon Rian Johnson is back for another standalone film— and possibly even his last one for quite a while, as he begins develops his own Star Wars trilogy. In his newest outing, Johnson trades a sci-fi fantasy epic for a classic Hollywood mystery with a killer ensemble cast, a luxurious Kentucky mansion, and cozy, expensive-looking sweaters. The brilliance of Knives Out, however, is that Johnson is somehow able to deliver a hilarious, crowd-pleasing whodunnit film, while simultaneously keeping his radical trademark subversive storytelling intact. I suspect it will be quite challenging for any soul to walk out of this film unamused because on both a casual and intellectual level, Knives Out is an absolute knockout.
After crime novelist and patriarch of a large, wealthy and dysfunctional family, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), is found dead on the night of his 85th birthday, Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is called upon to investigate the site. After suspecting “foul play” on the premises, Blanc keeps all family members and witnesses in the Thrombey home to untangle this web of family tension. He appoints Harlan’s caretaker, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), known for her heart of gold and close relationship with Harlan, to help him crack the case. Yes, this is all so familiar. The mansion and dysfunctional family is a tried and true formula for the murder mystery, from cinema to the board game Clue and theatre dinner parties. However, what matters not is the basic framework and aesthetics, but what you do with them. I cannot stress this enough, reader: this is all you should know about the plot itself going into Knives Out, a film so whip-smart and meticulously visioned that simply watching it unfold is reward in itself.
So, what does Rian Johnson do to reinvent the wheel? Something that immediately sets this film apart from every other whodunnit is how it delivers its mystery. Johnson is not interested in keeping the viewer in the dark and resolving the film through untangling some tacky, BCC Sherlock-Esque master plan. Instead, Johnson subverts the whodunnit by (mostly) giving us the truth. It might be bits and pieces of the truth, yes, but it’s the truth all the same. There’s no wasting time with unreliable narrators (a tool that, while fun, has run its course in this genre) and no cynical director to audience trickery. In fact, the truth of the mystery advertised in all its trailers is revealed fairly early on. While it happened, I was in fear of what the film would do with its remaining runtime, a fear that alleviated the more time I spent in Johnson’s joyous puzzle box. There was so much joyous thrill in the “what’s next?” whimsy of Knives Out that I was reminded for the first in a very long time how much fun there is to be had in genuine suspense. Retroactively, I realized why I felt that way: Rian Johnson has complete confidence not only in his screenplay but also in his audience. In a digital age of Hollywood of clickbait and over-analysis, I felt what it was like to be included in the unraveling of a film once again.
But past the amount of fun there is to be had in Knives Out, I was somehow surprised with the amount of thematic and emotional depth to this story. Ideologically, politically, and morally divided, the Thrombey family is in shambles, and their only connective tissue is the welfare of their patriarch’s fortune. Not all too dissimilar to The Last Jedi, Johnson has a lot to say about class structures, generational gaps, power dynamics, and gender politics. The members of the Thrombey family are well-defined caricatures: Michael Shannon’s Walt is a sellout who depends on his father’s ghostwriting, Toni Collette’s Joni is a Gwyneth Paltrow type, complete with a lifestyle brand called “Flam”, Chris Evans’s Ransom is the spoiled youngest child with nothing to show for his wealth. The way these characters all clash before the pieces of the film’s main conflict fall into place is already electric, but it becomes even clearer how comically shallow they are as the film continues.
The outsider in this eccentric family is Marta, staggeringly performed by Ana de Armas. Johnson allows us to view the absurdity of the Thrombey family from the perspective of Marta, from the traditionalist conservatives and their microaggressions to the performatively liberal family members and their corny Hamilton references, it’s clear that to this upper-class prestige, Marta is only an accessory. But Johnson doesn’t stop there, and the more we learn about the mystery itself, the more Knives Out becomes a takedown of elitist American mentality. A household of family legacy becomes an allegory for a nation in an identity crisis, and the question of who inherits the future of the nation lays on the balance of this conundrum.
Utilizing the conventions of a whodunnit murder mystery film and spinning them on their heads, Johnson crafts a film that is immensely satisfying on both a cinematic level and on an intellectual level. It’s a film that is always keeping the viewer on their toes while never cheating them out of participating in a clever little mystery box. Knives Out is overflowing with an invigorating creative spirit, and as subversive and modern it is, it never acts as though it’s better than the genre films it’s inspired by. It’s a film that has a lot of love for history but uses those conventions to critique the issues of American class systems. From the first to the very last shot of the film, Johnson is expressing that it’s out with the old, and in with the new.