dir: Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson, as a writer and director, and probably in playing competitive boardgames and in the bedroom, is too clever for his own good. I acknowledge that it’s a meaningless phrase. I probably just mean he’s a smartarse.
Sometimes he pulls it off, sometimes it just doesn’t land, but often he’s a really keen director.
Kinda like an American version of Edgar Wright; another talented director whose love of film and love of being a clever fuck sometimes trips him up with his own ambitions.
Knives Out is a film that is plenty entertaining, so he probably got the balance right this time. Murder mysteries usually aren’t my thing, because there’s just so many shows and movies about people annihilating each other, but I’m here for clever stuff and decent performances.
This flick has like a dozen hams mostly restrained in the best of ways, in the service of a plot that is not so much a whodunit so much as a “what the hell happened and why, and how nasty is the central family, right?”
You’d also be surprised, considering how many well known faces are in this, as to who the main character is. You might think it’s the detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), only because his craggy face is recognisable as the current incarnation of James Bond, or Chris Evans because Captain America. Or that it’s the elderly Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), just because he’s ancient and was there at the start of cinema cranking the … thing that made the first projector go and lighting the candle that shone through the first time they played a movie of a train to an audience and they all ran around screaming thinking it was real.
That was him. Check yer facts. He was there. But he’s not the main character . Or Jaime Lee Curtis or Don Johnson or perennial oddball Michael Shannon or Australia’s Own Toni Colette or Australia’s Other Own Katherine Langford (star of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Kill Yourself Or Leave All These Tapes to Torture People With) or Lakeith Stanfield, star of Sorry to Trouble You, Atlanta and just generally being really weird.
No, it’s none of them. It’s actually one of the people on staff at the Thrombey Mansion, being Marta (Ana de Armas), a nurse to the elderly patriarch Harlan (Plummer). Harlan is a crime writer of much success, with a large family of hangers on and parasites (though not of the South Korean kind). He’s smart, very successful, and now he’s dead.
If he’s so smart, why is he dead? Anyway, it looks like, from the perspective of the dumb cops, that it was suicide, but there are some questions about who was doing what on the night in question. With so many people around, many of whom had motives, something surely must be afoot.
A pair of cops, police cops at that, one of whom is a complete Harlan Thrombey fanboy (Noah Segan), interview the family members while a famous detective lurks in the background. The family members tell their version of events leading up to that night, which was Harlan’s 85th birthday, but we also get to see what really happened, which invariably means they were all lying, in their own individual ways. There are some doozies here. These fucking entitled jerks… Each in their own way not only revels in remaining latched and continuing to sup at the teat that is Harlan’s wealth, but feels an overwhelming right to staying there forever and getting more More MORE.
The particular favourite is daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), who gets her daughter’s tuition to Smith paid for by Harlan, but feels the need to steal the same amount each year from him by pretending the fees haven’t been paid, which, since she’s been doing it for 4 years, means she’s bilked $400,000 grand from the old bugger in order to promote her Instagram wellness influencer bullshit. First of all, $100,000 a year for college? That’s nuts! Of course she sees nothing wrong with any of this, because why would she. None of them see themselves as the leeches that they are, but then again why would they. They all feel like they earned being born connected to a wealthy successful man.
Harlan doesn’t see it that way, though. He sees his wealth, that he feels he earned with his efforts, having distorted and damaged his family, having prevented them from striking out and achieving something for themselves, since their reliance upon him drains them of ambition or drive. I don’t know that I buy that as a particularly positive concept, since it presupposes that whole pulling yourself up from your own bootstraps bullshit which is a pure fiction rich people tell themselves and anyone who’ll listen to mask the fact that they know massive wealth is hardly earned and often a matter of luck and selfishness, and ignores the way family members etc support someone to do the thing they wanted to do which reaped big cash payoffs. But he is right in identifying the negative influence it’s had in the lives of the people around him, because they are fucking arseholes, mostly. Entitlement is a hell of a drug…
The main thing that must have happened is that someone was told at the party that they were all going to be cut out of Harlan’s will, a fact that is way more relevant now since Harlan is no longer amongst the living.
And then the funeral rolls around, and the will is read, where everyone is licking their lips hoping to get as big a piece of the pie as they can, they find out the horrible truth: Harlan left everything to his nurse Marta.
Oh. Okay then. The family goes berserk, for obvious reasons, but now they are at least united in one thing: destroy Marta at all costs.
The family has the usual kind of divide you’d find in most families, an ideological divide that is being played out in countries across the world, the familiar and boring disparity of one people preaching the pragmatism of progressive politics and the other side preaching the doctrine of self-reliance and patriotism and killing foreigners for being foreign. All the arguments are carried out in the very familiar manner of people just saying the same buzzwords for the same things. Thus you may hear such words as “anchor babies”, “MAGA”, “snowflakes” etc, but the thing that can bring a family together, despite their ideologies, is greed. They are united in not having to ever work for a living again, and they’re not going to get that if Marta walks away with everything.
The greatest weapon they have against Marta is the legal status of her mother, who fled to the States from somewhere else with the hope of a better life, and maybe to murder some White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, just like all refugees. Marta herself is a legal citizen, but her mother’s status is precarious. That’s one angle. The other is to destroy her and blame her for Harlan’s death. That seems like a good plan, yes, that could work. You can’t inherit from a will if you’re found responsible for the person’s death, so, sweet. All they have to do is pin on the girl they claim they treated like a member of the family despite multiple scenes where they treat her like a servant, and can never remember the country her parents are actually from. She is routinely described as Mexican, Peruvian, Brazilian, Uruguayan and any number of other Central or South American countries. Truth is, she’s an AMERICAN, arseholes, which is, I guess, the point.
There are a number of problems with that, from Marta’s perspective, despite being a decent person compared to the piranhas. She knows what happened to Harlan. And she is biologically incapable of lying without throwing up.
Okay, so maybe there are aspects of the set up that are a little twee, or even less than believable in this realm of existence. But they make for a delightful reversal of how these Agatha Christie type murder mysteries usually play out. The thing is, from our perspective, we are told very early on what happened, and we’re meant to be wondering when everyone else is going to catch up. But even if we are being shown more than what the other characters can know, we don’t always know the whole story, and Marta, bless her little blood spattered cotton socks, doesn’t either, despite thinking the weight of the world is upon her shoulders.
It does change the focus a little bit. We’re watching a detective trying to piece together the elements of a mystery, and we’re watching someone else along for the ride trying to dismantle that same structure, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Flicks like this depend on twists, but I don’t think this one relies on out of nowhere shock surprises in order to sell what it’s doing. Everything is telegraphed enough in advance such that at the end almost all elements tie together in a satisfying way despite the manner that it tried to upend this sort of template.
A particular joy in this movie is the presence of Chris Evans for once playing an unapologetic rich arsehole. He plays it like he’s taken notes from the Trump sons on how to be a contemptuous piece of shit with utter disdain for anyone and everyone else. I’m surprised there weren’t scenes of him shooting endangered animals with a rifle and an air of utterly unearned privilege. He’s great. What’s not to like? I don’t want to have dinner with him, or be related to him, or owe money to him, or work for him, or be in a fraternity with him, but seeing him treat his various family members with as much contempt as he has for the service industry is pretty special.
Of course most of the heavy lifting is done by Ana, and Ana’s face, that generally has an expression of quiet terror suffused with an air of “oh fuck how am I going to get out of this?”, and she does very well, with the sweatiness and the piqued look like she just might throw up at a moment’s notice. I generally loathe seeing people throw up in movies or any else for that matter, but it’s mostly used to comic effect here and also to underline particular bits of the plot considering how it always, eventually makes her throw up if she says anything untrue. She is different and great with almost every character she is paired with, both as a character trying to navigate an impossible situation, and as an actor trying to juggle a lot of emotions. She sells the concern for her family, the precariousness of her position as a foreigner, her expertise and compassion as a nurse, and as someone who doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but is being painted painstakingly into a corner.
Yes, it’s way too clever, but it all works, the elements cohere, even the social commentary on the status of immigrants and the States, the through-line sustains the momentum. About the only thing we have to endure is the pretty ordinary Southern accent Daniel Craig adopts as part of this detective charade. I guess he’s meant to be a homage or pisstake on Hercule Poirot maybe, but it’s a bit distracting. I am not sure if he was doing it deliberately in a less-than-believable manner, but it did make me laugh when the delightfully named Ransom (Chris Evans) calls him out on his bullshit Foghorn Leghorn impression.
In the end, the family is clustered around, and a particular character stares down at them from a balcony, drinking from a mug, and on it, partly obscured, are the words, we assume, “My House My Rules”. It’s the best possible ending that I could have imagined, and I was delighted by it.
I loved Knives Out. It was a wicked delight.
9 times you need to know whether a knife is real or not before you try to murder someone with it out of 10
“Well, in for a penny…” – in for a stabbing, naturally – Knives Out