There’s a mansion full of suspects, a Clue board waiting to be solved. So we play the game. It’s called Knives Out, and it’ll make you wonder how the murder mystery — where death is actually fun — has largely been absent from movies in an era where true crime is a genre thriving via podcasts, TV shows, and books.
In Knives Out, writer-director Rian Johnson follows up Star Wars: The Last Jedi with a film that returns to his pre-space opera groove: reviving classic genre cinema with clever modern twists. Knives Out is a new whodunit for fans of old ones, in the same way Brick appealed to film noir fans with a high school flavor, or how Looper spun a satisfying time-travel story by going as small as possible.
The corpse that begins Knives Out was once a man named Harlan Thrombey. A famous mystery novelist, Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is extraordinarily wealthy, and he has accrued the duplicitous family that often comes with a vast estate in stories like these. Because his death occurs on the night of his 85th birthday party, his entire family is in town, and they are all suspects.
Knives Out introduces the Thrombeys through the eyes of three people: local detective lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield); charismatic private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig); and Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s private nurse.
As the three of them work to piece together the family’s internal squabbles, Knives Out gets delicious. Jamie Lee Curtis is petty and withering as Harlan’s eldest daughter, Linda. Don Johnson, playing her husband Richard, is a blowhard conservative completely unaware of his frequent hypocrisies. Jaeden Martell is a walking punchline as Jacob, the youngest Thrombey grandson, who is derided by everyone but his father as an alt-right internet troll and pervert.
One of the pleasures of watching Rian Johnson’s work — and this includes Star Wars — is how his movies can be read as self-aware love letters to the genres they play in. In Knives Out, this means that Johnson, as a devoted fan of Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries, finds a lot of joy in creating his own. But he also anticipates what other fans like himself might presume will happen next, so he can take even more delight in subverting that presumption.
Knives Out doesn’t mess with the fundamentals. It’s tremendous fun to watch the cast have a blast with what they’re given.
Then there are all of the little flourishes that put a spin on the proceedings. This includes Marta’s strange psychological condition that causes her to puke whenever she lies (a very fun plot device to have in a mansion full of liars), or the way Knives Out continually turns its big questions into little ones, answering them immediately and moving on in a way that will initially perplex you before you think for a minute and decide, yeah, this movie knows what it’s doing.
It’s all very good, but, like any good murder mystery, I must conclude with a parlor room scene in which I tell you why it all fell apart for me.
Just so we’re clear: I’m about to spoil a big part of the movie. I’m not going to give away the mystery, but I am going to bring up a pretty big piece of the puzzle that the film has deliberately obscured. If you’d like to remain unspoiled, feel free to stop reading here.
As Knives Out enters its second act, it complicates things with a subplot wherein Harlan has named his nurse, Marta, to be the inheritor of Harlan’s entire estate. This is a huge surprise to everyone, Marta included, and upon this revelation, Knives Out becomes a full-blown satire. The Thrombeys — who, before Marta’s reversal of fortune, believed themselves to be good people because they were nice to her despite all their casual racism and espousement of conservative talking points on immigration — drop all pretense when their Latinx nurse might get the wealth they think they deserve.
Marta, who cannot lie, who remains noble throughout the movie, who just wants to do the right thing becomes the hero of Knives Out. We want to see her prevail over the scheming wealthy white people who callously brush off concerns about the grotesque inhumanity on the US southern border in drawing rooms, who feign principle in opposition to their most egregiously offensive family members but ultimately only maintain their noble beliefs from the comfort of wealth.
In introducing this conflict, Knives Out indulges in a trope that’s ultimately damaging to the people its satire aims to bolster up: the notion of “the good immigrant,” which maintains that immigrants and people of color deserve to be treated humanely because they’ve earned their humanity, not because they’re human. As Knives Out twists its way toward a conclusion, it doubles down on condescension, elevating Marta over the political landscape that would rather demonize her. Trouble is, people like Marta are already demonized by bigger and crueler buffoons than the Thrombeys — and there’s no fortune waiting to save them.
And so, even though Knives Out ultimately brings its mystery to a satisfying conclusion with a culprit named and cuffed, there’s another one that gets away clean: white guilt.