Film Review – Knives Out
Disclaimer: see https://knivesout.movie/ for official information and stills from the film – the film is the property of Lionsgate Entertainment
Note: there are some spoilers here! I’ve tried to keep as much detail out as possible but some key elements are discussed
I’ve been enjoying lots of free time over the last few weeks and have been relishing the opportunity to catch up with friends. I’m not really a movie person but a friend suggested we go and see Rian Johnson’s wildly popular whodunit ‘Knives Out’ on Boxing Day. It is by far one of the best films I’ve watched in recent years (and I’m not usually one to fuss over how good or bad I think a film is).
Johnson notes the influence that Agatha Christie’s crime novels had on his work, and said that he tried to “strip off the veneer” from tropes that may have become tired and old. I thought he did a fantastic job of bringing it into the present. However, he also left a distinct tribute to the past in the sense that ‘everyone in the room’ was a suspect.
Johnson’s cast is star-studded, spanning multiple generations. Christopher Plummer, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas play the main characters, with Jamie Lee Curtis and Katherine Langford just two of the supporting stars. (Yep, the cast is actually that good). They do a fantastic job at keeping the audience on edge for the entire 130 minutes.
(In the interests of spoiling as little as possible, I’ve only described what I think is essential to the discussion of the film; a lot of the story’s elements are not discussed here)
The film is set around the investigation into the death of crime writer Harlan Thrombey, who was found dead in his study the morning following his 85th birthday party. Thrombey’s children, daughter-in-law and grandchildren all become key suspects, as does his nurse.
Investigator Benoit Blanc (played by Craig) takes Thrombey’s nurse Marta Cabrera (played by de Armas) as his sidekick as he tries to uncover the truth behind what seems to be a murder. Blanc figures that Thrombey’s children and grandchildren would all have had something to gain from Thrombey’s death (through the will) and uses their stories to try and piece everything together.
Particularly during the opening stages, there are points where each of the suspects seems like the likely killer, thus keeping the audience very much in the dark as to whom the actual villain is. However, around the half-hour mark, the audience becomes privy to the knowledge that on the night of the party, Marta accidentally delivered Thrombey a lethal dose of morphine as part of his nightly medication. Inexplicably, her medical kit did not have the naloxone (effectively an antidote) to reverse this overdose. Thrombey slits his own throat, content to die, and urges Marta to escape.
As such, while Blanc continues his investigation, the remainder of the film leaves the audience on edge, desperately hoping Marta is not punished severely for what was an honest mistake. To add to the tension, Marta’s mother is an undocumented immigrant, meaning that she would likely be deported were Marta to be convicted or even suspected of the murder.
Blanc continues his investigation, becoming aware of Marta’s involvement but refusing to believe her capable of the depravity (or even the negligence) required to deliver the fatal dose AND not have the antidote. He suspects tampering, and by piecing the information together Blanc uncovers the mastermind behind the events.
One of the strengths of the film is the strong characterisation. This is helped immensely by the police interviews held at the beginning – while serving to inform the investigation, these also help orient the audience within the world of the film. Beyond these, following family interactions throughout the film helps construct characters who are real and fit nicely into their world. I think Johnson is greatly helped here by placing the characters into a modern context so he can best reflect a real-life family – there is even a comedic left-right political division within the family that adds plenty of humorous moments throughout.
In particular, Blanc and Marta (the characters the film follows most closely) are carefully and masterfully constructed as the plot unfolds. Blanc is introduced as a man shrouded in mystery, with subtleties such as his French name and his heavy Southern drawl only adding to that perception. Quirky mannerisms and a tendency to obsess over what appear (on the surface) to be trivial details in the world of the film add to his strange character but give him a comedic quality. I’d hazard a guess that Johnson does this in order to lighten the mood of a very tense investigation.
Marta is introduced as a quiet, innocent young nurse who is well loved by the members of the family despite being an outsider. These qualities help the audience warm to her early and cause them ‘root for her’ (so to speak) throughout the remainder of the film.
The subplot about her mother’s immigration status adds vulnerability to Marta’s character, eliciting further sympathy from the audience. This aspect of her character adds an interesting dimension to the story and allows Johnson to comment on a very timely social issue. By contrasting Marta’s character with Thrombey’s largely unlikeable family, Johnson is able to illustrate the reality that many undocumented immigrants are normal people with families, desires, values and aspirations similar to most of us. (I won’t comment on the legal and political implications here as I try to keep this blog apolitical).
A further interesting aspect is that near the beginning of the film, Thrombey’s family mention that Marta’s family is from Ecuador. However, they later say that her family is from Paraguay; later still, they say her family is from Uruguay. There could be multiple meanings to this – perhaps one is that the general public are often uninformed (and potentially uninterested) about immigrants’ stories. Johnson may be using this to emphasise that while public opinion often paints immigrants with a broad brush, they all do have a unique identity that tends to go unappreciated.
Beyond the characters, the plot twists were another fantastic part of the film. This aspect is a wonderful tribute to the great crime writers of past eras. Johnson is able to do this well by feeding important pieces of information into the story as it moves along. That is, he doesn’t reveal everything as he sets the scene in the initial stages. Rather, he uses the perspectives of the different characters to build the case file that Blanc (and the audience) use to piece the story together.
In doing this, Johnson uses each one of the characters in a vital way. In fact, the information given by Thrombey’s mother (who we would expect to be close to 110 years of age) plays a vital role in Blanc’s eventual cracking of the case. Again, it is Johnson’s clever characterisation that is responsible for these exciting twists in the narrative. At some points the audience’s ‘trust’ is in particular characters and not in others; at other points some characters are often dismissed as part of the furniture. This all rests on what we are told about each character and the situation more broadly. In hindsight, every perspective has an important part to play and Johnson sets each of these lines up admirably as he builds towards a climactic finish.
There is one issue I had with the film’s plot after walking out of the cinema on Boxing Day. In order for the story to work, the mastermind who tampered with Marta’s medical kit (and thus set off the entire sequence of events) must have preempted both Marta and Thrombey’s actions.
Of course, this is not impossible – this mastermind is a family member, and knows them both very well. The villain is also revealed to be intelligent (I won’t say much more than that lest I spoil the plot), so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they were able to preempt the sequence of events in perfect succession.
However, with this level of intelligence it is certainly possible that this mastermind could have achieved their goal in a way that manipulated Thrombey without needing to have him dead. Further, if this person had such an intimate knowledge of Thrombey’s thought patterns, it stands to reason that they could have gone on to become just as good a crime writer as Thrombey himself. The influence and money this offers would certainly allow them to gain whatever they wanted without masterminding Thrombey’s death. Because of these question marks, I thought the conclusion of the case was a little contrived – perhaps the only blot on an otherwise brilliant film.
Beyond this, it’s worth noting that Marta consistently beats Thrombey at the board game ‘Go’. This suggests that she also has the requisite level of intelligence to know Thrombey’s thoughts in a way that would have allowed her to also carry out such a sinister act. Could it be that she set up the circumstances under which she knew both Thrombey and the villain would act the way they did?
This is an interesting piece of speculation but in my opinion seems inconsistent with the character we are presented in Marta. It’s possible that Johnson intends a juxtaposition between Marta’s intelligence and the mastermind’s intelligence, aiming to illustrate that intelligence must be used the correct way.
All in all, I thought this was an excellent film and well worth the watch. Johnson is masterful in the way he manages the multiple plotlines and character arcs, keeping the audience engaged from the opening until the closing scene. I am sure this is may become one of those films that gets discussed for years as a classic.
IMDb poster: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8946378/mediaviewer/rm2569376769
Rian Johnson interview: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/interviews/rian-johnson-knives-out-agatha-christie-whodunnits-daniel-craig
Featured image from IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8946378/mediaviewer/rm611032833
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