A big country manor in the middle of New England. Successful Whodunnit writer Harlan Thrombey is celebrating his 85th birthday. By the end of the evening he’ll be dead, having apparently slit his own throat. But was it suicide? Was he killed by one of his loathsome family, each of whom has a motive? Or was it an accident, the result of a series of unfortunate events?
Enter gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (don’t pronounce it Blank), played by Daniel Craig. Cagey about letting on who has employed him, Blanc follows in the shadows of the detectives assigned to the case. He appoints Thrombey’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) as his deputy, but, like everyone else, Marta has a hidden secret.
How to explain the story of a Whodunnit without mentioning plot spoilers? It’s not really possible, as even the red herrings have been laid carefully for us to discover at an appropriate time. But that’s not a problem, as I don’t want to talk about the plot but about something else entirely.
Knives Out is primarily neither a Whodunnit nor a Murder Mystery. It is a savage dissection of class, privilege, and the inability of our social “betters” to feel any sense of empathy. There is a running joke that each one of them thinks that Marta is from a different Latin American country, and while Marta and the “Help” are told that they are part of the family, they are clearly outsiders.
Blanc doesn’t seem particularly interested in finding out who is responsible for the alleged murder, as they are all as detestable as each other. There’s the “self made woman” who built up her own company with nothing to help her but a large grant from her father, there’s her cheating husband and the Lifestyle Coach sister-in-law who has been embezzling money to help fund her Gwyneth Paltrow-type hippy shit empire.
That’s just part of one generation. There’s also the brother who runs his father’s publishing empire, without putting in any work himself. There’s the self-satisfied son who can’t be bothered to go to the funeral and there’s the alt-right grandson. Each of them is different, yet they are equally contemptible in their own way.
Some may be semi-Nazis, some Trump-hating liberals, but when push comes to shove, they are all self-serving narcissists who are offended by the very idea that they do not deserve their excessive wealth, or that they should consider those less fortunate than themselves. They may allow the migrant staff their place at the foot of the table, but they also blame foreigners for all their self-inflicted woes.
The fact that all this is woven into a murder mystery is particularly satisfying. Traditional thriller writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers were in thrall to the privileged, joyously depicting every inch of their country houses. Knives Out’s writer-director Riann Johnson shows no such deference.
The rich Thrombeys are contrasted with the virtuous Marta, who is literally unable to tell a lie without throwing up. And yet the Whodunnit plot (with a little help from Craig’s chewing the scenery in a good way) distracts us for most of the time from seeing it as a simple morality play.
The film is not perfect. The middle scene drags on too long as it leads us by the nose for such a long time, that we start to worry that there’ll be no plot twist at the end, and we’ll finish feeling frustrated and cheated (plot spoiler: no worries on that account – there is a final plot twist and its a doozy). And some of the plot developments depend on rather fortunate coincidences.
But these are minor quibbles, and I haven’t even mentioned yet just how funny the film is. It is uproariously funny, and not just because the all-star cast has been let off the leash to just enjoy themselves. There are some great one-liners and we cover the gamut from a very well-timed vomit joke to a throwaway line about no-one ever reading “Gravity’s Rainbow”.
I wasn’t sure exactly how much I liked Knives Out while I was watching it, but the more I think back, the more I’m enjoying it in retrospect. Despite the excessive length (I repeat, no film should be longer than 2 hours), we are bombarded with so many things that it’s only afterwards that we can fully appreciate them. I’m not generally a fan of going back to films that I’ve seen recently, but this one would benefit from a revisit, just to catch all the things that we missed first time round.
For the third day in a row, Film of the Year so far. Let’s just hope that 2020 keeps up this hit rate.
Second Viewing – August 2020
Now there’s plenty of films that are worth watching more than once, especially if you have as poor a memory as mine. I may just about be able to remember that it’s a sledge, or she’s a man, or that its Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box, but I generally forget major characters and important plot twists so that a second viewing awakes the same emotions as before.
But if that’s all it is, each repeated viewing would gradually become a pale imitation of the previous one – only interesting in accordance with your deteriorating memory. Knives Out was more than that – it was a film that works better on the second viewing.
Reading through my original review, I notice that I picked up on a couple of things, without realising their full significance. The first lies in the fairly uninspired conclusion: “I’m not generally a fan of going back to films that I’ve seen recently, but this one would benefit from a revisit, just to catch all the things that we missed first time round”.
This is exactly what happened. The film has many characters, each of whom having their own back story. And because it is a Murder Mystery, it has an interest in not privileging any of these characters above the others. This makes us spend a lot of time worrying about why someone is behaving the way they are, even though this is entirely incidental to the plot.
Reviewing the film impresses you with how intricately and cleverly structured it is, and how it delights in actively misdirecting our attention. This bring us to the second thing I mentioned in the original review. First time round, I moaned at the middle scene which “drags on too long as it leads us by the nose for such a long time”. On the first viewing, this is a very valid objection. For a long time, everything just seems too obvious.
But on a second view, you see how director Rian Johnson is able to play with the way in which he introduces new information, all the better to manipulate our expectations. We are aware of the conventions of the genre, so at first we first assume that detective Benoit Blanc knows everything, and everyone else just has their subjective interpretation. But then we are treated to flashbacks which Blanc doesn’t see, so we know some things that he doesn’t. And the characters in the flashbacks know it too.
It goes on. As we are shown scenes from different characters’ point of view, and know that they are trying to mislead each other, and we regain authorial omniscience. Once more, we think that it is just us – and possibly Blanc – who know everything that’s going on. Watching again shows just how deluded we were to make that assumption.
Knives Out plays with our expectations so that we may think we know what’s going on, but we are just being led down a path which seems the only possible interpretation of things, until we enter the revelations in the denouement. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about (and there’s no reason you should), you just need to watch the film. And then you need to watch it again.
The best comparison that I can make is with a certain sort of album which sounds ok on the first hearing, but on repeated play becomes indispensable. Hearing the same thing over and over again should make it boring, but the structure and texture is so finely organised that multiple plays make you appreciate the complexity of what’s been done even more.