I’m not a big fan of the whodunit genre of film-making. It’s a hard genre to do, to be fair. Once the big mystery is revealed, the audience knows that forever and ever. So the re-watch value can be tainted. And if the movie didn’t lay down enough clues, there is no satisfaction in the answer. But if it laid down too many, the reveal is just as unsatisfying. On top of that, whodunit films can often get laid down and dragged into repetitive exposition instead of interesting dialogue, and while they might have interesting characters, they aren’t very developed or engaging, especially on re-watch. To this day, the only whodunit movie I was fond of was Clue, based on the board game, and if it wasn’t for my bizarre passion for Tim Curry, I’m not sure I would like the film nearly as much as I do. Knives Out leaves no such doubt in my mind. Not only is it by far the best whodunit film I have ever seen, it is one of the best movies of 2019. Maybe even…the decade?
This film is so well-written and crafted that even if I spoiled it in depth during this review, I have all the confidence that anyone who went on to watch it anyways would still have a good time with the twists and turns the movie takes and of course, take in all of the sheer fun the movie offers. What makes this movie so different from other whodunit films? Well, while the cast, cinematography, direction, and virtually any aspect you can think of are top notch, it really is the thematic and witty writing that seals the deal. I’ve seen funny whodunits, I’ve seen clever whodunits, but I’ve never seen one with both done quite to effectively, and likewise, I’ve never seen a whodunit film that actually had a major point to make beyond “let’s have fun”.
If you haven’t seen this movie…do it. I’m going to try my best to avoid spoilers, but it’s pretty hard. So just skip to the last paragraph to avoid anything for a final verdict, but I think you know where it’s going. This movie is brilliant, and has earned its critical praise for a reason.
Alright. The butler did it.
I’m joking, of course. This movie actually reveals exactly who did it (referring to murder) rather early on. Maybe this isn’t a whodunit so much as a…whydunit? But of course, this movie is nothing if not clever, and it’s thanks to Rian Johnson, who has proven himself to be one of the best new(er) directors on the scene. Johnson is responsible for 2 of the absolute best episodes of Breaking Bad, one of my favorite Star Wars films, The Last Jedi, the brilliant Looper, and the highly underrated Brick. Johnson tends to both write and direct his own work, and he certainly has hit many different genres and moods in his career thus far. He’s a master of taking a different approach to conventional film narratives and keeping his work visually engaging, always going beyond the bare minimum. Knives Out is no exception, and had he not directed the best 50 minute episode of television history, I would say it’s perhaps his best work (so far).
Knives Out doesn’t just defy the whodunit narrative, it uses the weaknesses to its advantage. It’s well aware of the genre’s faults and tropes, and it turns them on its head to keep its audience guessing, second guessing, laughing, surprised, and satisfied all at once. Every element in this movie you could think of works to that end. For instance, Daniel Craig stars as Benoit Blanc, a Foghorn Leghorn accented detective who’s on the murder case, called onto it anonymously. Now, casting 007 as this ridiculously over the top Southern drawl inspector was simply put, unexpected. From the moment you’re caught off guard by the accent to the end of the film, you wonder if it’s genuine or an act, especially as the most baffling twists are revealed. It also subtlety cues you in that nothing you were expecting is guaranteed in this movie. Nothing.
My word, can I take a moment to talk about this ensemble cast? Everyone is bringing their A-game. Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Langford, Don Johnson, and even the smallest role from Jaeden Martell make for a very engaging presence. Everyone was carefully selected here, and it pays off. Plummer (the victim) is a clever and warm old man, Chris Evans, (hot off playing boy scout Captain America) plays a rude hothead, Toni Collette plays a hippie Instagram progressive, and Michael Shannon plays a strangely engaging but slightly terrifying man (himself). In such a drowning mess of big names and eccentric characters, everyone stands out and likewise, remain memorable after the credits roll. It’s not often that characters besides the inspector in these whodunnits remain memorable.
But as I mentioned before, what really makes Knives Out stand out is that brilliant writing, and especially the thematic relevance in that writing. At the end of the day, Knives Out is a reflection of the American society in a post-Trump world. Ana de Armas’s character, Marta, consistently faces microaggressions, stereotyping, and flat out racism from the massive family of the man she was nursing, and it plays into the plot especially heavily. There are the occasional spats between family members, such as the young cousins calling each other a Nazi or SWJ, or the older generations discussing their feelings on immigration in front of Marta-who happens to be an immigrant herself, with an undocumented mother she lives at home with. Everyone in the upper class family that Marta works for is mooching off of Harlan, the murder victim. Their entire lives are at stake when Harlan dies, hence the stakes of the case affect everyone. But for Marta, Harlan was a friend, not a life line. Likewise, if anyone earned his affection, his attention, it was her. Hence…she is left with everything in the will and the family of Harlan loses their minds. All their lives the family has lived comfortably and proclaimed their successes as their own, but when their money supply is cut, they are, in short, screwed. And from there, the apparent politeness for Marta and microaggressions turn into hateful spite. They threaten to deport her mother. She is told she is stealing “their heritage”. They question her background.
Yes indeed, Knives Out is a movie desperately needed in 2019. You begin to worry less about the murder and more about the bigotry, because Harlan’s life is already over, and it was a full one. Marta’s is just taking off and could be tanked by the erratic and desperate family. Thus the mystery in the film is just one element, and the re-watch value manages to stay high. Because you can go back and watch the performances and notice the thinly veiled bigotry, or understand character’s actions in a new understanding. Likewise, because the movie is so witty and unique in its approach, there will be both laughs and new discoveries when doing so.
So, that brings us to the diversity score. It’s one of the best in the year for that. Knives Out is so self aware in its message and likewise, so relevant, that it manages to speak for both the lower class, and especially for the Latino community, in a tasteful manner. Whodunnit movies don’t need to have a theme, especially political/social ones, but Knives Out does it anyways, and it does it well. It also manages to have great female representation, and again, Ana de Armas is one of the best female characters of the year, and likewise, is a Cuban immigrant, so I like to see that the role was personal and well-suited for her. I think Rian Johnson really goes out of his way more than most directors to have a nice balance to his movies that doesn’t feel forced and likewise, is actual representation of different people.
Go watch Knives Out. If I’m being honest, this entire review felt like a flow of incomprehensible nonsense, but I’m so excited that it’s hard to compile my thoughts. So if my writing didn’t do the movie justice, please just ignore it and scramble to a movie theater and have a very cinematic murder mystery thrill ride filled with laughs and wit.
Author: Rafael A. Sarmiento, originally published [12/17/2019] for Incluvie