You don’t see a lot of whodunit movies lately, but it is a fun genre that has always been a favorite of mine over the years. Well a new film called “Knives Out” is meant to put a modern spin on the whodunit formula. Written, produced and directed by Rian Johnson, “Knives Out” focuses on a family whose patriarch (Christopher Plummer) is found dead. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) leads an investigation into the death, initially deemed a suicide, determining that almost everyone in the family had some reason or motive for wanting the old man dead. With the help of the victim’s caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas) who suffers from uncontrollable vomiting when she lies, Blanc sets out to determine the true cause of death. The audience is made privy to details of the death through flashbacks, but even when we think we have things figured out new pieces to the puzzle turn the investigation on its head. Is “Knives Out” the comeback film the whodunit genre deserves? Let’s get to the bottom of this case! Let the review commence!!!
Right off the bat I have to say “Knives Out” was a lot of fun, although not necessarily the kind of fun I was expecting. Going in I thought the film would play out similar to a “Clue” style whodunit offering bits and pieces of the puzzle throughout the movie until we get to the epic conclusion where only one of many becomes the culprit. We kind of get that through a fun twist ending, but instead of keeping us in suspense throughout the movie in the traditional manner of whodunits “Knives Out” actually exposes a main suspect within the first 45 minutes and we follow along as said suspect tries to avoid being found out. It’s a cool blend of traditional whodunit and something similar to a reverse narrative where we supposedly already know the criminal ahead of time and the fun is seeing the detectives try to figure it out. But don’t think the mystery is that simple. As I said before, all is not what it seems and what appears to be so easy to understand becomes complicated as new pieces of the puzzle come to light. I could go into great details but that would spoil a lot of twists and turns and the suspense of the film. To put it plainly “Knives Out” is actually two stories in one as we watch the dedicated Detective Blanc try to solve the case while the person we’re being presented as the criminal tries to allude his suspicions. It does make for some fun drama as the story is made to lull you into a false sense of security and understanding making you think you’ve been handed everything you need to know so that when the big reveal finally happens everything falls into place brilliantly.
But I can’t say this was a hard mystery for me personally to untangle. As pieces came into play I did figure out what was really happening pretty quickly and even when something didn’t seem to make sense I found myself sticking to my suspicions because I knew it would all fit into place at the end. Now this isn’t because I’m a good detective in my own right, because I’m not, I just found “Knives Out” story to be a bit on the predictable side, but that doesn’t make the adventure any less fun. I was kind of hoping I’d be proven wrong by the final act but when I wasn’t I still found joy in the fact that I, as a viewer, figured everything out and I got this great sense of accomplishment that I could follow the movie and mystery so well. Also, like I said, there were things I couldn’t place into my theory at first so seeing how they fit into my own deductions made the final moments that much more satisfying. This is the kind of experience a whodunit should provide. You want both the viewers and the characters to be engaged in the mystery even if we’re ahead of the characters in terms of solving the case. In spite of its predictability “Knives Out” still has some fun whammy moments and revelations that make it worth viewing a second time to experience it from a new perspective, with the full knowledge of all the hints and hidden details only the second time you’re trying to see how you missed everything.
There’s another layer to “Knives Out” that takes it beyond the mystery aspects of its story and that’s the Thrombey family. Honestly this ensemble cast plays a back seat role to the main mystery, especially since the story structure blatantly attempts to divert suspicion from nearly all of them early on, but they’re still very memorable characters portrayed by a committed ensemble cast that includes Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, and Jaeden Martell as well as Christopher Plummer as patriarch Harian Thrombey. They clash with each other constantly, some more than others, and a lot of times you feel like you’re supposed to pick sides as to who are the better people in this mishmash of personality tropes. But then Rian Johnson throws some not-so-subtly subtext into the mix especially with one scene where it’s clear the family is talking about politics and a certain United States president. It’s here where some viewers may be turned of as their murder mystery whodunit becomes briefly lost in modern politics.
Rian Johnson uses the family as a way to comment on the division of society with Ana de Armas’ Marta serving as a symbolic representation of not only immigrants but the lower class. Almost every member of the extended Thrombey family has some sort of agenda or political belief that plays into their characters. Some are liberal, some are conservative, some are right down the middle but they’re all despicable people in their own way. Marta, who served as the patriarch’s nurse, is meant to represent the lower class and her relationship with the Thrombey’s is a symbolic interpretation of the division of classes and beliefs in society. She’s a lower-class immigrant with no political leanings making her the subject of both criticism and convenient friendship from all of the Thrombeys. Many of them only want to be kind to her when they think it will benefit them while others appreciate her but also take advantage of her when given the chance. At first I felt like this was a bit of pandering in a time of division in our country, but upon further examination I actually enjoyed this idea. Yeah it does distract from the murder mystery that makes up the main story and can feel like a jarring bit of subtext to put into a movie like this, but at the same time it’s such a fascinating and frankly uncomfortable dissection of society hidden within a film about not judging a boot by its cover. In that sense it’s actually a pretty savvy way to say something without saying too much, almost like Ryan Johnson it telling us that when it comes to finding the bad guy, whether its in a murder mystery or in the larger world around us, the answer and the true criminal is not always so easy to determine.
“Knives Out” as a whole is a fun experience that combines great moments of levity, suspense, action and character building to create a solid modern whodunit. It’s simultaneously hilarious and amusing with some fun and sharp writing complimented by great acting by everyone involved. While it might seem like the mystery is spoiled early on, there are still plenty of twists and turns to behold and the energy never lets up keeping you fully engaged and involved in how everything is going to wrap up. Add in a bit of political and social subtext and you get a film with several layers that can be enjoyed as either a slightly subversive take on the traditional whodunit formulas or as a striking commentary on societal divide and how we treat those that are below us on the totem pole. Either way there’s a little something for everyone and “Knives Out” stands as one of several film experiences in 2019 that I can;t wait to enjoy again.