Knives Out

I was a Rian Johnson skeptic for years. I can’t deny it. I recognized BRICK as original and well directed, but couldn’t swallow its stylized world of teen noir (“in my day a dude walking around with a duck cane was in for a serious ass beating, he would not be running a drug empire,” I wrote), skipped the second one because I thought it was gonna be bootleg Wes Anderson, liked LOOPER but recoiled at people talking like it was the Second Coming (“I feel a little out of step here. I mean I like it, but I don’t want to fuck it”), and this may be out of line but I have always thought his credits should read “Written and directed by Rian [sic] Johnson.”

Then STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI came along – a movie I didn’t think he was qualified to direct, but it turned out to be so much better than I expected, and so reinvigorating to a trilogy I thought was going in an emptier, more obvious direction. All the sudden I wanted to hear everything the guy had to say, listened to interviews, started spelling “Ryan Coogler” as “Rian Coogler,” and even considered maybe seeing THE BROTHERS BLOOM some day.

So I was much more open-minded for his new laughdunit mysteryblast KNIVES OUT, which sure enough is a fun time for all without anything that felt too corny, forced or self conscious for me. Only in the last shot did I think “oh, this is kind of Wes Andersony.” And by then it wasn’t gonna bother me much.

This is the story of the rich family of famed mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, ROCK-A-DOODLE, MALCOLM X), who has just died of possible suicide, but police detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield, THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB) and hotshot private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER) have gathered them at the house to question them about his 85th birthday party that preceded his death. Since many of them had arguments with him, some involving money and inheritance, it seems like one of them could’ve killed him.

What I did not get from the trailers is that the actual main character is Marta (Ana de Armas, KNOCK KNOCK, BLADE RUNNER 2049), Thrombey’s longtime nurse. She lives in a small apartment with her undocumented mom (Marlene Forte, “Transport Chief,” STAR TREK) and sister (Shyrley Rodriguez, The Get Down), and knows more about what happened than she’s letting on. She also has a condition that causes her to vomit if she tries to tell a lie, so it’s hard for her to cover things up when Blanc pressures her to be his “Watson” during the investigation.

The story is twisty of course, but not always in the spots or the ways that I expected. At times it’s a whodunit, other times the question is what exactly was even dun? I found the story satisfying, feeling somehow traditional and fresh at the same time, keeping me guessing and surprising me in the right spots.

In the tradition of Agatha Christie’s adaptations and/or CLUE: THE MOVIE it’s a highly qualified ensemble cast playing colorful characters, and it’s fun just to watch them bounce off each other and transparently look after their own interests, regardless of the way it turns the gears of the mystery plot. Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis, ROAD GAMES) is the successful and responsible daughter, who resents Walt (Michael Shannon, KANGAROO JACK) for being a major “publisher” just by having access to their dad’s books. Richard (Don Johnson, DEAD BANG) is Linda’s country club husband, and Ransom (Chris Evans, BATTLE FOR TERRA) is their do-nothing playboy son who everybody hates. “Lifestyle guru” and Instagram influencer Joni (Toni Collette, xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE) ends most sentences with a question mark, was married to a deceased Thrombey, and is still embraced by the family along with her college-going daughter Meg (Katherine Langford, deleted scene, AVENGERS: ENDGAME).

Also, Johnson regular Noah Segan, who I will always know as the gringo villain in Mark Zaror’s REDEEMER, gets some laughs as Trooper Wagner, the lieutenant’s dorky backup.

For me, three of these characters and performances stand out the most. First of all, de Armas as Marta pulls off a real tightrope act – she has to be the pure and innocent one who we all root for, but she’s also the one we know is lying and trying to hide her actions the entire time. And getting in over her head makes her a comical goof, like when she has to act oblivious while intentionally trampling her own incriminating trail of footprints.

Secondly there’s Evans, who comes into the movie late and insinuates himself into the center of the plot. Since CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER he’s been our favorite boy scout, but do you remember when he was in FANTASTIC FOUR and his whole thing was being the cocky smart ass? Here he blends the two personas because he’s an arrogant dick but he seems to be helping Marta outsmart his shitty family.

And thirdly there’s the show off, and the highlight, Craig. I gotta imagine Johnson saw him in LOGAN LUCKY and knew the world needed to see him doing more Southern accents. Sticklers for realism in regional dialect representation will have to go out to the lobby while we enjoy James Bond doing Colonel Sanders as Hercule Poirot. Some might say he’s chewing the scenery, but it’s more like the scenery is an alligator and he’s wrestling it. I would be down for more Benoit Blanc Mysteries.

You know what though, I gotta give an honorable mention because also Motherfuckin M. Emmett Walsh (STRAIGHT TIME, HIGH NOON PART II, BLADE RUNNER, BLOOD SIMPLE, MISSING IN ACTION, CRITTERS, RED SCORPION, THE MIGHTY QUINN, THUNDERGROUND, PANTHER, WILD WILD WEST) shows up for one scene. I haven’t seen him in anything in ten years (admittedly my fault for not seeing SCORPION KING 4 yet) so I was delighted the second I heard his voice. He plays a character that’s not required to be anything special at all – he’s the guy who lets the copes watch a security tape! – but he makes every frame of his screen time a joy to behold.

This type of movie is old fashioned, maybe timeless, but Johnson very gently and organically folds some of-the-moment themes into the mix. Though Marta is repeatedly told she’s loved as a member of the family (“I thought you should’ve been at the funeral. I was outvoted.”), no one seems to know which South American country she’s from. Asked his opinion about immigrants by the police, Richard quotes Hamilton (the musical, not the actual guy), but at the party he drags everybody across concrete with a rant about immigrating “the right way,” cluelessly dragging Marta into it as his proof of a “good” immigrant. The bastard forces us to side with idiotic Joni in this argument. Her hysterics are correct. But none of them are aware of the struggles of this so-called family member, not even young Meg, who rages at police when they ask if Marta is with “the help.”

There are repeated discussions of what constitutes “self-made” by these people who were given millions by birth or marriage. They strongly believe that everyone must pull themselves up by those famous American bootstraps, and also that they are entitled to their family fortune and “ancestral home.”

And in the tradition of Rose Tico’s “fight for what we love” philosophy in THE LAST JEDI, Johnson promotes a warm, positive ethos that rewards characters for being kind and doing the right thing regardless of personal interest. The person who SPOILER gets the money is the only one who’s not expecting it or trying to get it. Harlan probly deserves blame for what a bunch of snakes his family turned out to be, but in his final days he’s discouraging greed and sacrificing himself for others. And his decorative knives are retractable.

If I have one complaint about this one, it’s that Curtis (who I love seeing treated as a marquee star again) and Colette (who seems to be having a blast playing a cartoon) aren’t in it enough. But in my capacity as Mr. Above It All I wrote that when LOOPER “was over I felt like that was enough, I don’t feel like I’ll necessarily want to watch it again.” So congratulations to Johnson for leaving me wanting more.

This entry was posted on Monday, December 2nd, 2019 at 7:34 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Mystery, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Knives Out”

  1. I thought this was a lot of fun, and the absolutely ridiculous cast was a big part of that- I love when you can look at any random person in the background of a shot and they’re doing something just as interesting as the main focus, and this movie had a lot of that.

    In addition to the welcome appearance of M Emmet Walsh, another small part with a pretty big name attached was the lawyer who reads the will- none other than Miss Piggy himself Frank Oz, following Rian over from THE LAST JEDI set I guess.

    If the movie has a misstep for me, it’s that there was a period (intentional vagueness for spoiler’s sake) between where we find out what happened but long before we get all the details about what REALLY happened where I wasn’t 100% sympathetic to our main character. It never brought me fully out of the thing, and I thought they tied it up well but for a while there I was questioning why I should root for her. It definitely helped that the rest of the family are so obviously despicable.

    Also, between this, DJANGO UNCHAINED, MACHETE, and the WATCHMEN show, Don Johnson is having a real “racist uncle” moment as an actor.

  2. I’ve had the exact opposite Rian Johnson experience. I loved BRICK. It was one of those movies that seemed to be tailor-made for me. But I’ve enjoyed every movie he’s made since progressively less. BROTHERS McWHATEVER was merely forgettable and derivative but LOOPER is where I started to suspect that he might be totally full of shit, and LAST JEDI (a movie I admit I was never going to like no matter what) was just an utter mess. Couple that with his prior attempts at comedy not exactly inspiring confidence and the fact that the sight of Toni Collette now leads to instant eye rolls and I have been on the fence about this movie, which should otherwise be right up my alley. I love mysteries (though admittedly not necessarily those of the English drawing room tradition) and light capers and hammy acting, so it should be a no-brainer for me. Sadly, I’ve lost all confidence in Johnson’s ability to tell a story that holds the slightest bit of water so I think I’m gonna have to wait for DVD.

  3. Yeah, I’m sort of in the same boat (except I didn’t really like Brick. It was Miller’s Crossing with teens. And somewhere in the middle I realized I’d rather just watch Miller’s Crossing again), so no matter how much praise gets heaped atop this one, it doesn’t change the fact I have zero faith in the guy (plus, I read an interview with him and he says ‘dude’ and ‘totally’ a whole lot. I usually don’t let such things interfere with the films themselves, but it was a WHOLE LOT)

    So, if I still remember when it hits video, I’ll give it a spin. But, something tells me I’m going to forget and I’m okay with that,

  4. I loved this one so much. It’s got a lot that I just love inherently – whodunit, drawing room mystery; elaborate, gothic set dressing; diverse cast of greats. But in itself, it’s just so well done. There were so many little touches that impressed me. I absolutely loved when Don Johnson was going on his immigrant tirade how he seemingly unconsciously handed the nurse his plate. I just read that it was an ad lib on his part. Brilliant.

    ****SPOILERS**** from here on out.

    They did such a good job with layering on the Ransom character. He was so obviously despicable, so why was it so easy to believe he was helping her and could be a good guy? First you cast Chris Evans. One, he is really good at playing an asshole character, but he’s also Captain America and you really want to like him. All that was needed was the one line from Harlan saying Ransom was the most like him. Now we’re set to give him a break. Plus, we never see his argument with Harlan until the end. We didn’t get the police questioning scene where we see what is really said versus what they tell the police is said. The final piece is putting him in fucking comfy sweaters. All you want to do is cuddle up to him like he’s a fucking teddy bear. Or was that just me? Seriously, though, it totally softens the character subliminally.

  5. This was good and fun. Some of the dialogue was a little wobbly and I’d like to see them lop 10 mins or so off the run time, but I liked this one. I think my favorite line was “You think a will reading is going to be exciting like a gameshow, when in reality it’s more like a community theater production of a tax return.”

  6. I was just thinking about M. Emmet Walsh this weekend! Hadn’t seen him in a while and figured the next time I heard about him it would be sad news. Hooray!

  7. Enjoyed it and thought it was a ton of fun but thought it would be a very good and maybe even great movie if Johnson put aside his ‘Aren’t I so clever and funny and quirky!?’ sensibilities. I knew he would not so I’m not disappointed.

    So that said: One part a really good movie but it also gets a bit too cute and clever with itself.

    In other words: it’s a Rian Johnson movie.


    I agree that, while I enjoyed this movie overall, I would have liked it more if Johnson have simplified the script a little bit more and got less cutesy with it. The convoluted explanation at the end is fine, but I can’t really get behind the entire first act being an elaborate fake out. It wastes a lot of time establishing various characters and what they were doing on a particular evening, and then almost none of this turns out to be important. It sets them up as suspects for one act and then immediately drops it. The twist is nice, I suppose, but it sure makes a lot of the characters feel pointless. They aren’t even red herrings.

    Also, it’s weird that most people are talking about KNIVES OUT as a whodunit, when that only really applies to the very beginning and the very end. The majority of the film is a comedic thriller (and a fun one!), the mystery ends up being the least important part.

  9. I am and always shall be a Rian Johnson fan. Loved Brick and the rest (only haven’t seen Brothers Bloom, but I should I guess). I liked the episodes he did for Breaking Bad, too. Just gets into my head.

    This was the exact movie I needed this weekend, post Thanksgiving. The family squabble about race and immigration was sooo on the nose for I am sure a lot of people’s holiday gathering this and other years. I am with Maggie above, too and loved Don Johnson handing over the plate.

    What made the mystery work throughout, even when we find out the “how-dunnit” before the who I liked the Rashamon-like flashbacks. Some were lies, for sure, but some were perspectives. Like we see Don Johnson waving over Marta in one flashback saying, “she was one of the family” and then we see the same scene from her perspective and it is less an invite than an attempt to bully her into talking immigration when she clearly doesn’t want to.

    I was also excited about M Emmet Walsh. If you are into more recent work, he was actually great in Sneaky Pete on Amazon as a old used car huckster and con-artist. Very cool to see him in action once again. Speaking of that show, it also had the final performance of Ricky Jay in it, too (I think they had to re-film some of it to take into account his death mid-shoot). So color me surprised when I thought I saw a small homage to Ricky Jay in Knives Out, too. When Walsh was introducing himself and his job, there were a bunch of pics on the wall behind him and one of the older black and white ones (former guard like him?) was Ricky Jay. Kind of sweet.

    Anyway, great review Vern and I think it is a spot on one, too.

  10. Vern my man, you nailed my feelings on Rian Johnson exactly. I have only seen his first three films once each: I remember Brick pissing me off, I just couldn’t stand the high school stylisation. Brothers Bloom I don’t remember at all. Looper felt like a throwback to cruddy late 90s action movies.

    Then The Last Jedi came and I had to reckon that I was wrong about the guy. That movie is a triumph and quite possibly my favourite Star War or at least top 3. It is certainly the most thematically cohesive. So suffice to say I really enjoyed Knives Out for just the reasons you say. I think need to revisit his earlier works too.

  11. I laughed so hard at the “Gravity’s Rainbow” reference. I also own a copy, never finished reading it, feel smart for having it on my shelf

  12. Vern,

    A while ago I asked if you had seen The Last Jedi since it’s theatrical run (you hadn’t).

    Like you, I came away from seeing it in the theater that first week when it was released pretty impressed. As time has gone on, I have found it almost unwatchable. I love everything with Luke, Rey and Kylo, and it is a great looking movie. But the entire filler story with Finn, Poe, Leia, Holdo has to be some of the dopiest crap in any Star Wars movie. I’m curious if you have rewatched it lately. If not, you should, especially with Episode 9 right around the corner.

    I liked Knives Out a lot. I was actually kind of amused (not to get too spoilery), but it really isn’t as twisted a whodunit as it is made out to be in the advertising. There are twists for sure, but it isn’t that wild of a story.

    Also, I think it is funny that Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas will be a couple in the next Bond movie (obviously looking significantly more attractive).

  13. Vern,

    A while ago I asked if you had seen The Last Jedi since it’s theatrical run (you hadn’t).

    Like you, I came away from seeing it in the theater that first week when it was released pretty impressed. As time has gone on, I have found it almost unwatchable. I love everything with Luke, Rey and Kylo, and it is a great looking movie. But the entire filler story with Finn, Poe, Leia, Holdo has to be some of the dopiest crap in any Star Wars movie. I’m curious if you have rewatched it lately. If not, you should, especially with Episode 9 right around the corner.

    I liked Knives Out a lot. I was actually kind of amused (not to get too spoilery), but it really isn’t as twisted a whodunit as it is made out to be in the advertising. There are twists for sure, but it isn’t that wild of a story.

    Also, I think it is funny that Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas will be a couple in the next Bond movie (obviously looking significantly more attractive).

  14. Patrick: Nobody’s ever finished GRAVITY’S RAINBOW. The purpose you are using it for (sitting on your shelf looking real impressive) is its only recorded usage. It’s the MOBY DICK of the modern age.

  15. Mr. M- that is the joke in the movie as well.

    For what it’s worth, though, I actually like MOBY-DICK a lot. I first read it during an embarrassing literary phase of my early 20s where I thought carrying a copy of NAKED LUNCH around in my bag all the time made me A Real Cool Dude (I feel it is now safe to admit what a chucklehead I used to be, since I’m now a totally different kind of chucklehead), and I was surprised how entertaining and readable I found it to be.

  16. Like most people, I got to the chapter in MOBY DICK that’s just a badly edited wikipedia page about whales and decided to have mercy on myself. You are made of sterner stuff than I.

    Ah, pretending to like NAKED LUNCH. A vital rite of passage. I used to wear a William S. Burroughs T-shirt for that purpose.

  17. Inspector Hammer Boudreax

    December 4th, 2019 at 12:34 pm

    I just want to step up in defense of Melville here. Also, Gravity’s Rainbow, a book I did finish and enjoyed very much. So, as much as I liked KNIVES OUT, that throwaway wisecrack will be fueling anti-intellectual dumbasses for years.

    I’ve read Moby Dick four times and I’ve read multiple books about Moby Dick. It means a lot to me. The thing is, it is on at least one level a book about obsession. And the book therefore gets obsessed with whales. I have a bit of an obsessive personality myself, at least in love. I’m not OCD in daily life, but if I’m in love with a woman, I will find her very toenail clippings to be worthy of attention. Moby Dick’s “boring” chapters enact this.

    I also feel like Moby Dick is the only book that gets two contradictory bad raps. On the one hand, some describe it as a boys’ adventure story without depth. On the other, some regard it as a turgid philosophical tome. To be insulted in both ways is surely a mark of excellence.

    Also, Pierre: or, the Ambiguities is punk AF.

    Also, also, debating what the white whale represents is a sucker’s game, akin to trying to figure out what’s in the briefcase in PULP FICTION. But I subscribe to the case that it is God. Ahab wants to kill God. Like Nas rapped: “Putting hits on 5-0, cause when it’s my time to go, I wait for God with a four-four.”

  18. Just for the record:

    I liked Looper a lot.

    I liked the Mark Hamill parts of The Last Jedi. The rest I mostly did not.

    I have been to the movies almost 30 times this year, I think.

    This for me was the worst film I’ve seen all year. Actually, a film hasn’t made me this angry since that abomination Life back in 2017.

  19. I was *really* interested and confused by where this movie was going for about 30-seconds when Marta pulls out some syringes and asks Plummer’s character if he wants to “get high” on “some of the good stuff.” I was just like…woah. That really subverts my expectations of the decent Old Man and angelic, hard-working immigrant tropes.

    Was it supposed to play as really dirty and weird for a second? Like they’re both gonna shoot up as a night cap? Or did I just misunderstand?

    Overall, I enjoyed the movie, but it mostly felt like an aperitif, a pallet cleanser, a trifle. There was very little THERE, there. I was way ahead of the plot nearly every step of the way and, while I enjoyed the proceedings, I left wondering if it was actually supposed to play as a mystery, or just as a farce about people solving a mystery?

    Also, it’s not progressive in my mind to cast minority actors as living saints. It’s still dehumanizing and shallow. Marta is a blank canvas with no flaws, no internal dilemma and virtually no *character.* the ultimate arc of her finally learning to lie, so as to expose the truth is well done, but she’s only well written as an expression of theme and poetic irony, not as a representation of a human being.

  20. Tawdry- I took that beginning moment to be basically just some playful banter between the two of them to demonstrate their rapport. I don’t think she was going to shoot up with him or anything.

    I also didn’t necessarily take Marta as a saint, either. Her character put me in mind of a noir character, a normal person who gets drawn into an extreme circumstance. As I mentioned earlier, based on the information we had in the beginning of the movie I wasn’t sure whether I was rooting for her to “get away with it” at all and despite the weird vomiting quirk, she’s clearly willing and able to conceal the truth of what happened from the beginning- if that’s not lying, it’s a distinction without a difference. It made her more morally grey in my eyes.

  21. @Krugan (SPOILERS!)

    Sure, she’s lying. But it’s framed in a manner that does everything possible to minimize culpability. It’s almost at the level of a fan-fiction self-insert. She had a Byronic past and a dark secret… except the ‘ain ’ In her past is being a brought to America as a child and In the present, she does everything within her power to correct the honest mistake and her “victim” immediately forgives her, then actively participates in the creation of her false alibi. As his dying wish, no less!

    She doesn’t even have a *single* glass of champagne or a puff off the joint. Hell, she didn’t even knock over the Go Board. In these kind of stories a tiny lie can spin out of control, but even her choice to lie doesn’t come from within, even *that* is external.

    I get that her sinlessness and inherent goodness are the point, central to the theme and all of it is elegantly structured within the rules of Campbell, but it’s still a character more befitting of a children’s story. Marta is the protagonist in a fable

    Actually, maybe that’s it, Marta isn’t a character from a Noir, she’s a fairytale princess. The inability to lie without vomiting fits right in with a bedtime story designed to teach right from wrong. Hhmmm, I’m probably gonna see this movie a second time with the Lady, so perhaps My opinion will evolve.

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