It’s often easier to remember the flaws of a movie than its strengths. That’s my takeaway from watching Knives Out a second time. I had sit with the movie for a couple of years and spent much of that time thinking about the movie’s many small to medium-sized pimples: There’s the pointless opening structure, which sets up half the characters as suspects, only to ditch the whodunit concept for the rest of the movie when we see the death in question onscreen a few minutes later. And then it jerks back away from Hitchcockian race-from-the-law thriller back to an identity-revealing exposition dump as if it’s been a normal murder mystery this whole time. And all of that weird narrative structure is married to a script that isn’t afraid to rub its nose in headline-ripped politics of presumptuous billionaires and illegal immigration, to the point of artlessness.
But then I hit play and remembered why I only thought about the movie’s flaws after the credits rolled, not before: It’s really fun to watch! Rian Johnson is terrific at sleight-of-hand and mystery storytelling! The film makes it easy to jump in for a fun ride, even if that ride has some swerves.
Johnson, the writer and director, was on the heels of his divisive contribution to the Star Wars saga with Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and he needed a return to his roots. His first movie, after all, was the terrific murder mystery Brick, though that one is a hardboiled noir blended with a dark teen drama, so very different in tone and ambition. Johnson says making a Raymond Chandler-esque mystery film made him want to make an Agatha Christie-esque mystery film, and that’s what Knives Out is. Well, mostly.
Knives Out tells the story of the fallout and investigation into the death of publishing mogul Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Every one of his progeny has reason to want him dead, including: Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) to whom he had stopped writing checks, Walt (Michael Shannon) whom he was about to fire from the family business, grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) whom he was writing out of the will, and son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) whose affair he was about to expose. A few others — e.g. neo-Nazi grandson Jacob (Jaeden Martell) and pot-smoking granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford) — hang around the perimeter with just enough screentime and ambiguity to be plausible culprits.
Luckily, famed detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired by an unknown benefactor to piece together the full story of Harlan’s death, which has been staged as a suicide. Craig is having the time of his life, unleashing a comical Foghorn Leghorn southern accent like he’s narrating a cowboy book at a children’s library’s storytime. Anyone who is familiar mainly with Craig’s work as the scowling, imposing James Bond will have to keep rubbing their eyes (and their ears) to believe that Craig is this loose and playful.
It’s all crystal-clear setup for a vintage whodunit, except — and I’ll warn that I’m going to freely discuss a plot point revealed about 20 minutes into the movie — it turns out all of those schematically designed suspects, each complete with means, motive, and opportunity, are for moot. Because Harlan’s death was accidental: his nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), gave him the wrong dose of morphine.
Thus, the majority of the movie shifts perspective as we follow Marta’s attempt to conceal her guilt. Harlan, who was closer to Marta than any of his family, had immediately forgiven her for her dosage accident. So, yes, the central figure of this murder mystery is not the Kentucky Fried Holmes but the immigrant nurse who can’t tell lies.
That would have been enough of a structural gambit, except there is one last twist that puts the ball back into Blanc’s court towards the end of the film. Our understanding of the truth is flipped upside down one last time. It all makes for a head-spinning narrative that would have been a death knell had the movie not been so well-crafted and well-acted.
The chief charms of the movie are, in nearly equal measure, the excellent craftsmanship by Johnson and the terrific ensemble acting work. Johnson’s direction is excellent and vivid, giving us a great sense of the space and the action, using the camera to clue us into to important details without really showing off about it. The central Gothic mansion setting is excellent, evoking Rebecca. And populating it with the likes of Curtis, Shannon, Plummer, Langford, Armas, and Craig, all bringing life to the film, makes it pretty damn fun and satisfying in spite of the odd narrative cramps.
The satirical edge of Knives Out, stated in the title — that the millionaires and billionaires of the world are ready to feast on the suffering of others — is not subtle, but also not so viciously blunt that it weighs down the rest of the movie. It remains a narrative current, but not the raison d’etre. Knives Out is thankfully a story-first film even as it drills home, especially in the second half, the idea that the wealthy will stop at nothing to maintain the status quo — that, perhaps, it is time for the power to shift back to those outside the ruling class.
The final payoff on that theme is very satisfying, too. The murder mystery and the satire dovetail in way that makes Knives Out feel like a grand statement; like the mess of everything that leads up to it is just part of the fun.