Review: ‘Knives Out’ is one of the best big studio movies of the year

Movie reviews | 29 Nov |

Writing about Knives Out without spoiling anything is nigh impossible. Many of the movie’s pleasures, themes, and political messages are wrapped up in its twists, making any meaningful dissection of them an exercise in abstraction. There are the praises that would be obvious, I suppose, if you’ve seen the other collaborations between writer/director Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin: it’s cleanly shot, the actors are impeccably directed, there’s a degree of self-awareness that never spills over into obnoxious metacommentary, and the narrative cares little for your expectations. It’s good.

If you’re a fan of murder mysteries, having fun, or any of the talented actors that are bursting at the movie’s seams like water from a crack in the Hoover Dam, Knives Out is an easy recommendation. It’s the most straightforwardly enjoyable movie of the year. If you’re reading this because you haven’t decided whether to see it, go see it, provided you have the time and money. If you’re intrigued about what lies under the movie’s surface—or why it’s not a masterpiece—read on. Just know that we’ll be venturing into very, very light spoiler territory. Nothing pivotal will be given away in the slightest.

Knives Out begins with (gasp!) a murder. The morning after his 85th birthday party, renowned mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey is found dead in his home. The suspects include every member of his entire family: they’re a dysfunctional bunch, and any of them—the kooky health guru, the rebellious troublemaker, even the dedicated daughter—could’ve had reasons to kill their patriarch. The fact that Harlan was the sole distributor of the family fortune only complicates the tension (and the detectives’ jobs).

Johnson’s penchant for unpredictability is as intact here as it was in The Last Jedi, but even more potent is his desire to make you laugh. Knives Out plays with multiple types of comedy: snappy dialogue, character-focused gags, contemporary references, and audiovisual abnormalities, among others. It emulates the fun of classic whodunits while rejecting the self-seriousness of later genre entries (such as 2017’s miserable remake of Murder on the Orient Express). The cast is keen on frivolity as well, hamming up their outsized characteristics à la 1985’s Clue. The game is afoot, and it is a blast.

The unrepentant political bent is a great time as well, depending on who you are. After The Last Jedi, Johnson was barraged with complaints that movies are “too political these days” (a position mired in nostalgia for a nonexistent past), and Knives Out is his answer shouted through a partisan megaphone. The dialogue can be a little blatant about it—characters talk politics like they’re trying to win points in a Twitter argument—but the sight of white people unraveling at the thought of losing their privilege is hilarious, timely, and wisely incriminatory.

Johnson keeps the white panic at an impersonal distance by making Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s Latina nurse, the protagonist. This allows for some messaging on the value of immigrants, but Knives Out continually stresses that their value is found in virtue and hard work, perpetuating the self-defeating argument that only the “best” people deserve refuge and better lives. Marta’s character is laughably infallible—she can’t even lie without vomiting, which is a funny gag, but only reinforces the notion that immigrants are valuable because they’re superhuman. The movie’s heart is in the right place, but Marta’s faultlessness makes for deficient commentary and a boring protagonist.

Knives Out’s other missteps, such as under-utilization of its most provocative characters and a surplus of explanatory dialogue, only damage Johnson’s vision in tiny bursts. This is easily one of the best big studio movies of the year—a well-oiled machine successfully designed for amusement, even if its stances aren’t as noble as they first appear. Its political misgivings are extra-notable precisely because it’s so forward about its politics. But if what you’re looking for is fun, Knives Out is a tremendously entertaining source of it.

★★★★   (4/5)

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