First of all, I’m not even going to get into any of the drummed-up controversy regarding Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed this movie. I emphasize “drummed up” when describing the controversy, because it’s only an issue among the small but vocal segment of Star Wars fans that loathe and detest the writer/director’s work on The Last Jedi. I’m also not going to go into how much I unabashedly and unequivocally adore The Last Jedi. You can read all about that here…
as well as in other articles, the links to which can be found in the above piece. I wrote a year’s worth of stuff on the subject; the pie is well-baked.
Instead, I—like Johnson himself—want to move ahead, away from Star Wars (hopefully only for the time being) to an entirely different genre. Johnson has proven himself adept at skillfully playing in a variety of cinematic playgrounds. Brick is an awesome little neo-noir film that more people need to see. Brother’s Bloom is a delightful little caper. Looper is a great high-concept sci-fi action film. The Last Jedi is a tentpole event film. Each of these movies has a secondary element to them that give them a little extra oomph. Brick is not just a noir film, but a high school drama as well. Brother’s Bloom tells its story through the filter of a comedy-romp. Looper has a mystery at its heart. The Last Jedi, while being a big spectacle movie, is secretly a personal, character-driven film about failure. The point is, Rian Johnson is a great writer, period. He’s not a great sci-fi writer, or a great adventure writer, etc. He’s just a skillful crafter of plots, regardless of the setting, style, or genre.
Knives Out is his latest and, like his other films, there’s a surface-level concept being explored, and a subterranean concept driving the action. On the surface, Knives Out appears to be a by-the-book “who-dun-it.” It doesn’t take long before the film’s second level is revealed. What is it? Well, I can’t tell you without spoiling it for you, so turn back now if you’ve not yet seen the film…
So if Knives Out is a whodunit, then what’s the second level of fun that Rian has with the story? Is it a comedy? Daniel Craig does steal every scene and has some hilarious moments, as do many others. Is it suspense? The movie does get surprisingly tense more than twice in the second half. No, the other genre that Rian plays with is…
That’s right, Knives Out is a mystery-within-a-mystery movie.
How he pulls it off is by revealing the “murder” and “who” did it at the end of the first act. That’s a remarkably brazen thing to do, especially since the point of a whodunit is to tease and raise questions all the way to the final minutes. By revealing the central mystery thirty minutes into the film, Johnson is gambling on his ability to hold our interest until the next big twist comes and the next big mystery is unveiled. That doesn’t come until midway through the second act, a full thirty minutes or so later. That’s a long time to watch the now-known killer play cat and mouse with the detective (a trope typically reserved for the climactic act of these sorts of stories). The way the movie is written depends on there being a gap between the two twists, however, and Johnson fills in the time in the best possible way: Daniel Craig pretending to be a Kentucky-fried Adam West.
That’s the only way I know how to describe it.
Watching Craig chew up and spit out scenery, meandering off on various tangents, talking at one point—in the film’s most hilariously bizarre monologue—about a donut’s hole and the “donut hole” that’s needed to fill it, only to discover the donut hole itself is a donut with a hole, etc. It’s surreal watching him read such obviously ridiculous lines with such a straight-laced performance. The only comparison I could think of was Adam West’s take on Bruce Wayne/Batman. It’s delightful. It’s bizarre. It’s single-handedly enough to keep the film chugging along while we wait for the other shoe to drop.
The other shoes drop when our known-killer, Marta Cabrera, finds herself blackmailed over the crime that no one should have known she committed. Up to this point, everything seemed very cut and dried; the movie does a great job showing you step-by-step how everything went down and why; the blackmail throws everything for a loop and turns the “solved-mystery” story into a brand new “donut hole with a donut with a hole inside it” mystery all over again.
And because so early on we’re given an explanation for the murder that we have no reason to question, the audience is able to let its guard down and stop thinking about who the killer could be, since we already “know” who it is. This solves the biggest problem with mystery stories: The audience is always trying to guess who “dun” it, and solve the crime without letting the story play out. If you guess correctly before the movie reveals the secret, you spent the time in between restless and bored. If you guess wrong then you might be annoyed that the reveal wasn’t what you had in mind, etc.
Instead, before you can even start formulating theories, Knives Out spills its beans and then goes in an entirely different, hilarious, bizarre, and twisty direction, before wrapping everything up in a wholly satisfying and totally “fun” kind of way.
I loved it and easily rank it among the best films I’ve seen this year.
10/10 – Excellently acted, fantastically directed, sharply written, and a great twist on a classic formula, Knives Out is for anyone who loves murder-mysteries, or just enjoys having a good time at the movies.