Knives Out (Rian Johnson, 2019)

On his 85th birthday, mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey invites his family to his mansion in the state of Massachusetts. Things take a turn for the worse when the wealthy novelist is found dead with his throat slit. The police believe it to have been suicide, but in order to get to the bottom of things, an anonymous person hires a private eye by the name of Benoit Blanc to investigate. As the mystery unfolds, a picture will be painted of a dysfunctional family, and in the middle of this strife stands a nurse named Marta Cabrera.

After the 2017 release of The Last Jedi, the eighth numbered Star Wars installment, Director Rian Johnson became a controversial figure. He had always believed in subverting audience expectations as early as the episodes he directed for the hit HBO show Breaking Bad. As such, his fans considered him one of the greatest writer-directors to emerge in the 2010s. Detractors, on the other hand, saw him as nothing more than a pretentious hack with delusions of grandeur, which were exacerbated by his sophomoric outbursts on social media. It was through his tendency to constantly pull the rug out from under his audience that “subverting expectations” became shorthand in certain circles for whenever an author goes completely off the rails.

With this context in mind, I actually have to say that making his follow-up to The Last Jedi a murder mystery film was a smart move. After all, if people are criticizing you for your misbegotten attempts to subvert audience expectations, what would be the best move? Delve into a genre where constant subversions are not only commonplace, but outright expected. After all, a murder mystery plot with no twists whatsoever is like crafting a science-fiction piece with no science whatsoever.

And I will say that superficially, Mr. Johnson succeeded in his goal. While the film does sell itself as a typical whodunnit plot, this is quickly tossed aside by handing the audience a painstakingly obvious culprit: Marta Cabrera. The nurse inadvertently administered a lethal amount of morphine into Harlan’s bloodstream. Unable to find the antidote, Harlan only had minutes to live. Marta’s mother is an undocumented immigrant. Harlan, sympathetic to their plight, prevented Marta from calling for help, gave her instructions for a false alibi to save her family, and slit his own throat.

What follows is a suspenseful second act that brings to mind The Fugitive in how the protagonist must evade an antagonistic private eye determined to get to the bottom of things – the key difference being that the audience is led to believe Marta is guilty of the central crime. Hugh Ransom Drysdale, disillusioned with his family, forces Marta to confess to her crime. As Marta turns out to be the sole inheritor of Harlan’s fortune, he asks for a portion in exchange for his services.

The best part about Knives Out is that it leads its audience to assume that the mystery has already been solved before eventually taking a step back and revealing it never ended at all. Marta eventually receives an email from an anonymous blackmailer, who eventually demands she meets them personally. At the rendezvous point, Fran, Harlan’s housekeeper, appears to yell “You did this!” before slipping into unconsciousness. Marta is quickly apprehended by Blanc, whereupon she confesses to her crime.

When the major players meet back at the mansion, Blanc makes a series of deductions based on everything he has seen. Marta did not, in fact, kill Harlan. Ransom had swapped the contents of Harlan’s medication to get her to kill her boss. As per the slayer rule, Marta would not gain the inheritance if she were found guilty of Harlan’s murder. However, Marta actually administered the correct dosage of morphine. Through muscle memory, she recognized the viscosity of the medicines and foiled Ransom’s plan. It was only after she read the labels that she suspected she may have committed an error. Ransom hired Blanc in order to expose Marta, but Fran observed his tampering, so he had to make her disappear. He overdosed Fran with morphine, intending Marta to take the blame for Fran’s murder. He also made sure to burn the medical examiner’s office down, which would provide evidence of Marta’s innocence.

In the end, Marta, receiving a call from the hospital, informs Ransom that Fran will survive. A smug Ransom basks in his victory before it is revealed that Marta tricked him. Fran is dead, and Blanc has all the evidence he needs to convict him of the crime. Furious, Ransom tries to take Marta down with him, but attacks her with a retractable stage knife, therefore only succeeding in adding an attempted murder charge to his list of transgressions. He is soon carted off to prison and Marta watches the Thrombeys from the balcony of her new mansion.

So, with Rian Johnson choosing a genre that thrives off of subverting expectations and pulling twist after twist in the final act, he must have created a true classic, right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Although I think the twists in Knives Out feel far more naturalistic than those of The Last Jedi, it is easy to tell that both films were written and directed by the same person.

Mr. Johnson’s defining flaw as a writer was that whenever he came up with an interesting idea, he tended to discard it once it served its stylistic purposes, not bothering to explore its underlying implications or take things to their logical conclusions. This could be seen as early as Looper, which featured a character who outright told the protagonist – and by proxy, the audience – not to think about the film’s central time-travel premise too hard, but it was even more obvious in The Last Jedi. You would get these scenes that looked incredible in the moment but either had no buildup or directly contradicted the series’ canon.

In the end, it was easy to get the impression that Mr. Johnson discouraged audiences from thinking too hard about his work because doing so would completely destroy his script’s integrity. Sadly, that continues to be the case with Knives Out. There was no reason for Harlan to sacrifice himself to save Marta. Six minutes had passed between the time Marta administered the morphine and when she discovered the missing labels. A morphine overdose leaves its victim unintelligible, so if Harlan is still capable of talking six minutes after the fact, he is perfectly fine. From there, they could have called the police, allowing them to discover Ransom’s tampering without Harlan or Fran needing to die.

While this may seem to serve a dramatic purpose, it does ruin the suspension of disbelief regarding Marta somewhat. A nurse should know the effects of morphine, so it is strange that she would go along with Harlan’s convoluted plan. It’s easy to mount the defense that she was in a panic, but if she performs so poorly under pressure, one wonders how she managed to get her license in the first place.

Fran’s arc manages to be its own can of worms. Knowing that Ransom is up to no good, she attempts to blackmail him only to get murdered for her efforts. She thought it would be a great idea to meet someone she knew was capable of murder in a dark, secluded room with no witnesses. She is shown to have a secret stash of marijuana, but nothing else in the narrative suggests she is this foolhardy. That she is a fan of Hallmark murder mysteries might have given her a false impression about how these stories pan out, but such a conclusion is far too large of a leap in logic for anyone not named Rian Johnson to make.

Indeed, what really sinks the film is that it operates on a very passive premise. What I mean is that certain elements are in place in order for the story to maintain its integrity and not because of any reason based in diegesis. Marta vomits every time she lies. This does result in a spectacular payoff when she reveals Fran’s fate, but it otherwise comes across as unnecessary – a subtler tell would have sufficed. Ransom’s first name being Hugh is solely to resemble the word “you”. That way, when Fran yells “Hugh did this!” at Marta, it sounds like an accusatory “You did this!” To put things in perspective, one of the Ace Attorney games featured a similar extrapolation – even involving a character with the same exact given name. One difference – the line of thinking in that game turned out to be a red herring. In other words, something that is rightly considered contrived in one story is suddenly perfectly serviceable in this one. While her mind was addled, if Fran yelled “Ransom did this!” or something similar, the plot would have been shattered into a million pieces. Then, of course, there’s the fact that she isn’t shown to be unintelligent yet has to make a spectacular blunder in order for her to end up as the real murder victim. I say it’s passive because it feels as though Mr. Johnson hardcoded the plot points into his narrative and forced himself to write around them – even as they were demonstrably proven to be unworkable.

Not helping matters is that Knives Out shares a key weakness with The Last Jedi. The eighth episode of Star Wars was intended to be a progressive, liberal piece, yet it had a very real undercurrent of chauvinism to it. It was especially sharp in how its protagonist inexplicably fell for a bad boy, but through another character, the narrative implored its audience to blindly submit to authority figures. Knives Out follows this example in how it handles Marta herself. Although the film was praised, certain critics drew umbrage in how it leaned into the “good immigrant” myth. The reasoning was that her rich, white employers bequeaths to her his entire fortune. This implies that immigrants deserve rights because they work hard, and not because they’re human. Just like in The Last Jedi, Mr. Johnson clearly wants to be progressive, but his was a perspective that lacked the context required to do a story such as Marta’s justice.

Otherwise, what I find to be the worst aspect of the film lies in its cast. While Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Benoit Blanc is gloriously hammy and Ana de Armas is very charming as Marta, everyone else is either forgettable or memorable for the wrong reasons. The Thrombeys in particular receive very little in the way of characterization. Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw of Zero Punctuation fame claimed that the cheater’s guide to characterization involves giving each cast member one exaggerated trait and referring to it as often as possible. I say this because that is exactly the impression I get from the cast of Knives Out.

However, this film goes a step further in that every member of the cast can be summed up in one word: unpleasant. A majority of the Thrombeys are self-absorbed, xenophobic dullards who hate that Harlan is closer to Marta than any of them. Considering what horrible people they are, one could hardly blame him. Two characters stand out as especially grating: Meg and Jacob. The former is frequently called a Social Justice Warrior and the latter is an alt-right troll. Older writers in the 2010s had immense difficulties writing characters intended to represent Generation Z, and Mr. Johnson was no exception. The dialogue of both characters come across like amalgamations of various social medias posts engaging in a contemporary culture war in cyberspace rather than things real humans would say. Considering how unusually active Mr. Johnson was on social media himself, this does make sense, but it doesn’t make the error any less egregious.

Jacob himself could be seen as a major red flag regarding Mr. Johnson’s headspace at the time. The backlash to The Last Jedi was such that Mr. Johnson felt the need to defend it even when he was supposed to be promoting this film. While I can sympathize with him wanting to put the alt-right in their place, it’s difficult not to conclude, based on Jacob’s presence, that the criticism of The Last Jedi struck a raw nerve. With Mr. Johnson labeling his critics manbabies, it soon became a common conclusion that if you didn’t like The Last Jedi, you were indeed an alt-right troll. Never mind the fact that a staunch liberal critic by the name of Owen Gleiberman was among those correctly calling out The Last Jedi for its many, many unfortunate implications. With Jacob’s dialogue mirroring what Mr. Johnson felt his most vocal detractors were saying, it demonstrated that, for all of his posturing, he was remarkably thin-skinned.

Then again, said posturing should’ve been your first clue.

As one needs the capacity to accept criticism to grow as an artist, it stands to reason that one who shuns guidance will stagnate. While hearing the same criticisms lodged toward you hundred – or thousands – of times would be draining, I don’t feel it to be a coincidence, based on Mr. Johnson’s behavior, that seven years after the release of Looper, he had improved not one iota.

The latter half of the 2010s saw an uptick in films attempting to appeal to the viewers’ emotions regarding important social issues. There are many factors that contributed to this trend, but the worst effect it had on film criticism was it encouraged people to seek emotional payoffs in lieu of something intellectually satisfying. In extreme cases, critics would outright strawman people for taking issue with plot holes or even just plot contrivances. With directors able to get away with misbegotten scripts so long as it reflected the critics’ viewpoints back at them, the level of talent among American screenwriters plummeted like a stone.

As it so happens, this was the perfect environment for a director such as Rian Johnson. Between Looper and The Last Jedi, Mr. Johnson firmly established himself as a style-over-substance director who could command an audience’s attention in the moment, but if they took a step back and actually thought critically, they would realize a majority of his ideas made no sense whatsoever. Experiencing his work often brought to mind the legendary Johnny Rotten quote “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Knives Out unfortunately continues that trend; it’s entertaining when you watch it yet manages to find a mortal enemy in the form of logic. Indeed, just the idea of logic is enough to make the story’s integrity crumble into dust.

While Knives Out is a better film than The Last Jedi if for no other reason than because it has the courtesy to limit the damage it inflicts to only itself, there is no getting around that it is rather convoluted. Moreover, while I do have an easier time appreciating his positive social messages than I did in The Last Jedi where they had even less of a reason to exist, they still date his film to the exact year it came out. This was a time in which writers were expected to hammer progressive ideas into their audience’s head with all of the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Critics frequently praised these films, but it’s a damning commentary on the state of their community how techniques that would have been considered bad storytelling in previous eras suddenly became the ideal standard. It got to the point where filmmakers were occasionally criticized for having the audacity to think highly of their audience.

Despite its missteps, I don’t think Knives Out is a bad film. It’s not for the thinkers in the audience, so if you’re looking for something mindlessly entertaining, it can tide you over for an afternoon. I can even see murder mystery fans getting something out of it, and Mr. Johnson’s weaknesses as a writer are mitigated somewhat by the genre itself. That being said, other than attempting to be a countercultural force mounted against a contemporarily conservative zeitgeist, Knives Out doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. In fact, it lags behind what Capcom accomplished with the Ace Attorney franchise. If you want intricate murder mystery plots starring great characters, those are the works you should check out; you don’t even need to be a gamer to enjoy them. Knives Out may have been acclaimed, but I find it to be further proof that filmmakers lost their claim to the artistic high ground to game creators in the 2010s.

Final Score: 5/10

4 thoughts on “Knives Out (Rian Johnson, 2019)

    • Thanks! I think Knives Out can charitably be described as an accidental step up from The Last Jedi in how the only reason it manages to be a material improvement is because Rian Johnson benefited from crafting his work in a genre that happened to mitigate his weaknesses somewhat. Unfortunately, they were not completely mitigated, and his inability to think things through ended up costing him once more.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I liked Knives Out more than Last Jedi (which is not saying much I’m aware) but I think they seriously needed to flesh out the relationship between Harlan and Marta considering the decision he makes. (I spent the whole movie thinking oh Harlan must have set them all up for a book or something.) She’s nicer than his family just doesn’t cut it but I get the feeling it’s more about the social commentary for Johnson even here.

    A big part of this film to seemed like it was made to appeal to mainstream critics so it will be interesting to see how he actually writes the sequel that’s not just another repeat of this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely agree that, for what little it is worth, Knives Out is a much better film. It helps that Rian Johnson chose a genre that better suits his strengths, but as you noticed, it didn’t completely mitigate his weaknesses.

      And you’re right; not expanding upon Harlan and Marta’s relationship was a missed opportunity. I have seen countless authors make the mistake of failing to develop a sacrificial lamb before they die (both The Last of Us and its sequel made this exact mistake). That approach can work, but you shouldn’t make the audience feel as though they are missing an important story beat or two. I sort of get it considering how badly his family sucks, but as you say, that doesn’t cut it. I think what makes Mr. Johnson’s unsubtle approach to storytelling so jarring is that he is unusually quiet when it comes to things that actually require an explanation. Consistency does count for a lot.

      And if I were making a sequel to this film, I think I would actually just want to shift genres entirely because unless it features a brand new cast, it runs the risk of being a retread. You can always count on Mr. Johnson to run the length of a football field with whatever harebrained idea he comes up with next, though, so you can continue to expect him to go the subversive route – even when it’s a bad idea.


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