Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring: Ana De Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis
Much has been made about the “subverting of expectations” since the highly divisive release of “The Last Jedi.”
It’s been two years, but fans still hotly debate the merits of what exactly director Rian Johnson was going for and how well and/or how badly he executed it. In at least this reviewer’s mind “The Last Jedi” didn’t work because the pacing and tone were all over the place but the subversion was maybe one of the one things it got right.
(Try not to cry anymore about it, fanboys)
As fans of genre films, we tend to want to give extra meaning to whatever we are watching based on what these types of films usually conclude because we want it to be bigger than it actually is in reality. We all watch and read stories because we are seeking some kind of truth in it, even in things as pulpy and cheesy as those about space wizards and super heroes, but sometimes in real life the truth isn’t as complicated as that and we must grapple with things just being not all that shocking.
Rey is special just because she is Rey, not because she has a bloodline to a Skywalker, Palpatine, or Kenobi and that’s ok.
(Deal with it.)
So how does Rian Johnson take on another genre, that’s almost completed predicated on the idea that there is some special clue or big reveal you are missing? How does Johnson, famous triggerer of fan boys everywhere, deconstruct the mystery genre in his latest film “Knives Out?”
By teaching us all a valuable lesson on morality of course!
“Knives Out” takes place the day after the 85th birthday of bestselling multi-millionaire novelist Harland Thronby who’s found dead in his attic study with his throat slit likely by his own hand. The death is ruled a suicide initially but investigator Benoit Blanc, who’s called to the scene of the crime under mysterious circumstances, believes there’s more to this death than meets the eye as it becomes quickly clear that Thronby’s estranged children and relatives are all lying about something.
How “Knives Out” clever “Whodunit” mystery lays out its plot is that it actively plays on your expectations of what a story within this genre usually entails. Much in the way we all expected there to be something profound and earth-shattering out of the mystery behind “The Las Jedi” because other Star Wars films did it too, audience members will likely go into this movie over-analyzing the meanings, the little triggers, turns of phrases that mystery films usually have until the story’s ultimate conclusion.
Before we go any further, this another case of a film like this being difficult to fully analyze without talking about finer points in the plot so if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t wish to be SPOILED I suggest turning back now.
(I promise to talk less about Star Wars from here on out…)
Anyways, director Rian Johnson counts on his audience to think there’s something more to Harland Thronby’s murder than meets the eye (played expertly well as always by the venerable Christopher Plummer). In fact, he gives pretty much everything you need to know right off the bat in the film’s first half hour.
You’ll spend most of the movie reverting back to the film’s initial openings and setups thinking “No, that’s too obvious” but then when you arrive at the movie’s answer to all this you’ll find yourself not going “really?…” but rather “I see what you did there.”
(Me at Rian Johnson after the credits rolled.)
As the film plays out audience members will immediately throw out the obvious choices for the murderer not because the clues of the film tell us we should but because our expectations of the genre tell us we should. Rian Johnson is counting on this as you’re watching it.
What’s brilliant is this idea plays out in meta context with the film’s chief villain, Ransom Thronby Harland’s asshole grandson played by post Avengers, curse-word heavy Chris Evans. See, Ransom too counts on Harland’s nurse Marta to make all the wrong decisions in the cover-up of Harland’s death because much in the way the audience is probably thinking we want to rule out the obvious right choices in these situations he thinks Marta will too.
But instead Marta, played by the always lovely Ana De Armas, just does the right thing at every turn. She doesn’t go about things incorrectly, following strictly only her morals that leads her to fortune she eventually inherits at the end.
(I’m sorry I wasn’t paying attention, what were we talking about?)
The film basically sets up viewers for a highly complicated murder mystery but, like a prowler slinking quietly through the night, it sneaks up from behind and guts us with the real truth of the movie that’s it’s really about just being a good person. The way Johnson is able to weave viewers one direction in this movie to sneakily just tell us a moral about being nice to people is kind of brilliant and in many ways meta on itself too considering the ordeal he went through with “The Last Jedi.”
There’ll probably be a few people who find the conclusion of the film’s mystery disappointing, if not surprising, but once you give it some time and stop viewing the movie by its genre alone (or a series of films it may inhabit in a franchise in another instance, not naming anything in particular of course) it becomes pretty clear the kind of beautiful puzzle Johnson sets up for here and the result is quite satisfying.
(Again. Deal with it.)
But even if you end up finding the film’s subversion too ham-fisted or irritating for whatever reason “Knives Out” is highly entertaining regardless. The aforementioned Armas, Evans, and Plummer, are of course great but they are supported by an all-star cast of actors and actresses who’s chemistry keep’s this Clue Board puzzle of a film humming along perfectly from start to finish.
The movie is filled with tons of good laughs and dark humor and the pacing is razor sharp and there’s hardly a tedious moment throughout its two-hour runtime. There’s a lot of other good meta jokes that may or may not be digs at Rian Johnson’s post “Last Jedi” career and plenty more digs at real life events and relevant issues that often come up in our American clusterfuck that play into the film’s expertly crafted plot.
(Also Daniel Craig definitely enjoyed doing his Foghorn Leghorn impression way too much haha)
In the end, it’ll be hard not to enjoy “Knives Out” even if the trope of narrative subversion might annoy you. The movie moves with relentless speed, anchored strongly by it’s colorful cast of characters played by some of the best actors and actresses in Hollywood today and whether the film’s conclusion disappoints you or not it’ll be hard not to find something to enjoy about this highly entertaining unique take on the mystery genre.
It’s movie about having decency and being good in the face of relentless negativity, narcissism and selfishness, and simply doing the right thing when no one else will and that by itself is a good message to send regardless.
So, take note before you hit Twitter later this month, Star Wars fans. It cost nothing to not be an asshole.
5 out of 5
I’m sure this won’t be controversial. Yup. Everyone will be completely satisfied and not a single neckbeard rustled!