There’s a lot of things I love about Knives Out: its clever structure, its cast full of perfect performances, its ability to perfectly nail the tone throughout, its unapologetic assertion of morality. I thought it was very near flawless, and it was a great reminder of how exhilarating it can be to see a movie that wasn’t part of a blockbuster franchise.
But one of the best things is that it kept me surprised throughout, so I’d consider anything outside of the trailers to be a spoiler for the movie. Please don’t read this (or any other reviews for that matter) until after you’ve seen Knives Out.
The one aspect of Knives Out that I’m going to focus on is the way that it wants to have it all both ways, and it somehow manages to pull it off. Based on the trailer, I thought I knew exactly what kind of movie it was going to be, and I was completely on board.
As it turned out, it was that kind of movie, but it also kept surprising me by changing direction. It’s very funny, but without sacrificing its tension or its emotion. The set direction and the opening shot suggest an old-fashioned period 1970s period piece set in a gothic mansion, but a lot of its tension comes from cell phones and topical references. Many of its characterizations are campy and almost over the top, but it also generates real empathy with the characters. It looks like a locked-room whodunnit, but it also has a car chase (even if it’s “the stupidest car chase”).
And one of the most clever and surprising aspects to me: it wants to be both a traditional whodunnit and a Columbo-style whodunnit that reveals the murderer near the beginning of the story. And they both work!
I would’ve assumed that the two types of story were mutually exclusive. There was a pretty great thriller (at least, great in my memory of 1987) called No Way Out that got its tension from having its protagonist trying to manipulate an investigation that would inevitably reveal him to be the murderer. Knives Out weaves that story in and out of a traditional murder mystery, and it’s fascinating to go back and look at how it manages to pull that off.
The beginning of the movie is brilliantly constructed. It has to set up the plot, introduce the characters, establish the tone as funny-but-not-flippant, establish the characters as extreme but not just caricatures, and put the audience in the role of observers who are given more information than any of the characters and will have to piece it all together. All while keeping things moving and preventing the audience from feeling overwhelmed.
The first clever twist is that the audience is set up not to identify with the eccentric detective, but with one of the least likely suspects. The second is the brilliant gimmick of having a protagonist who’s physically incapable of lying.
As a result, it takes a genre that relies on impassive detachment — you assume that everyone’s lying and treat the characters as pieces of a puzzle that the storyteller has laid out in front of you — and turns it into one in which you become personally invested in the main character and the murder victim. Meanwhile, the movie and the characters themselves are all self-aware to know that they’re in a whodunnit, so the analytical part of your brain can keep spinning, putting the clues together and trying to predict what comes next.
By the end of the movie, I realized that while I’d been patting myself on the back for being so clever at several points in the movie, it was at least a step ahead of me, planting red herrings. Not for the mystery so much as the structure of the movie itself. Throughout, I had figured out only as much as the movie wanted me to figure out. I was able to predict just far enough ahead so that I was in sync in the story as all the pieces fell into place.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing the special features, commentary, and deleted scenes for this movie, because I’d love to see how it was constructed and I wonder if there were more that was cut out. For instance, one of my minor complaints about it was that Riki Lindhome’s character felt like she was going to play a larger role that never really developed. Similarly, LaKeith Stanfield’s character had some great moments but felt underdeveloped even as an Inspector Lastrade stand-in; was there more at one point, or was this another misdirection?
Regardless, I’m a lot less interested in seeing Rian Johnson do a trilogy of Star Wars movies, and a lot more interested in seeing more of the ongoing Benoit Blanc series. The Maybe B. Blanc Mysteries? As much as I said this was a great self-contained film and a nice break from franchise-driven blockbusters, I can’t help wanting to see more of this from Daniel Craig and Rian Johnson instead of 007 and Star Wars. It has it both ways in so many other respects, so why can’t it be both an independent film and a franchise?