Knives Out: Rethinking The Classic Whodunnit

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– By Joe Campbell –
[Editor’s Note: This review is free of any major spoilers]

It’s almost impossible to surprise the audience with a murder mystery these days. What do you do when every conceivable angle has been covered? What if the murderer is the obvious suspect? Maybe it’s the unsuspecting hero? Maybe everybody is in on it. Maybe nobody is! We’ve seen so many twists on the classic “whodunnit” that when I sat down to director Rian Johnson’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Looper) Knives Out, I was spinning wild theories about what was going to happen before my seat was even warm.

And while Johnson succeeds in weaving a tale full of twists and turns (some more unpredictable than others), he accomplishes the far more difficult task of satisfyingly tying together a complex web of moving parts.

At its heart Knives Out is a love letter to Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries. It opens with a body, a detective, and a series of interrogations. Like any great Christie novel, Johnson attempts to tell a traditional story while coming to unorthodox conclusions. Every time the audience thinks they’ve got it all figured out, new evidence raises even more questions. Even Detective Benoit Blanc’s (played by Daniel Craig) name rolls off the tongue much like Hercule Poirot, and his easy-going casualness reminded me not just of Christie’s famed Belgium inspector, but of GK Chesterton’s unassuming Father Brown as well.

This comfortable and familiar framework is primarily what makes the film so charming. It embraces the rustic aesthetics of classic murder mysteries: the majority of the film is set in a creaky mansion and the murder victim (Christopher Plummer) is a wealthy author with a large family, most of whom have motives against him. In fact, there are so many characters here that it would be easy to lose track of them if they weren’t so colorful. Almost…too colorful?

The cast itself is a phenomenal collection, from heavy hitters like Chris Evans (Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Endgame), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, True Lies), and Toni Collette (Hereditary, Little Miss Sunshine) to comparatively new discoveries like LaKeith Stanfield (Get Out, Sorry to Bother You) and Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049, Knock Knock), not to mention a few surprise cameos I won’t spoil here. Johnson understandably directs his cast to be broad and memorable. The film is heavy with dialogue and backstory and it’s easier for the audience to keep everyone straight if each character is associated with an obvious identifier. Some actors take to this colorful direction more smoothly than most. Chris Evans slips comfortably into the dismissive, bitingly condescending role he’s given, and likewise Toni Collete is having a ball with her shallow, judgemental character.

On the other hand there are instances where the performances and dialogue feel stagey; Daniel Craig is especially delightful to watch as he bounces around from scene to scene, yet I was rarely sucked into his performance, acutely aware that I was watching Daniel Craig playing a role, as opposed to buying into the character himself. Many people might be turned off to this obvious artificiality, but others may find the quaint dialogue easier to adjust to.

In fact, though it may be a send-up to classic murder mysteries, Johnson’s movie is undeniably modern. Not only is the dialogue peppered with modern slang and internet-isms (one character is described as an “Instagram influencer”, and we see her and her phone in action at one point), but there’s an odd political energy to the movie. On more than one occasion we see family members from extreme opposites of the political spectrum argue with each other, and terms such as “snowflake”, “alt right nazi”, and “red hat” make an appearance on more than one occasion. These bits may make for a memorable punchline here and there, but for the most part I found them to date the movie in a way that will outweigh their relevance years down the road.

Johnson also tries to weave an unconventional narrative that tries to redefine how we think of a murder mystery. The audience is given a complex set of pieces up front and are challenged to figure out how they all go together. But before the halfway mark the entire structure has been rearranged, so much so that at one point the movie stops being a traditional “whodunnit” and turns into a completely different story altogether. If most murder mysteries are balls of yarn, wound up tighter as the movie goes on, Knives Out is more like a slinky: stretching out a collection of information, tightening it all back as the story seemingly comes together, then stretching it back out again as new information changes the whole narrative. It makes for a roller coaster of a first viewing, and I bet it will lend itself well to re-watches as the story will look completely different to one who knows all the ins and outs.

Safe to say Johnson picks up all the loose ends in a satisfying ending to an entertaining mystery. It’s a flavor of storytelling that views classic sensibilities through a current lens. It may be dialogue-heavy (especially the first half), but it’s all entertaining dialogue, delivered by skilled actors, that is constantly giving us new information. Two years ago Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express scratched my itch for a good “whodunnit”, and this year Knives Out does the same.


About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

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