The first few paragraphs of this are spoiler free, but major spoilers do arrive.
Who knew murder could be so fun? More importantly, who knew murder could be so nice? Rian Johnson’s whodunnit, Knives Out, may be the singularly nicest and most kind murder mystery anyone has ever made, an Agatha Christie-style sleuthfest with kindness and love as its guiding principle.
That doesn’t mean the film is trite or saccharine. Far from it – Knives Out is often biting and has a lacerating wit. Johnson mercilessly allows his characters to lampoon themselves through their idiocy, bigotry and selfishness. He has assembled a murderer’s row of actors to play a murderer’s row of rich doofuses, any of whom could have been the person who killed their aged and wealthy patriarch.
That patriarch, played with jolly aplomb by Christopher Plummer, is Harlan Thrombey, a famous mystery novelist who has built a vast empire out of his knack for offing his characters in entertaining and surprising ways. One day, on his 85th birthday, Thrombey wakes up dead, his throat slit. The coroner has ruled it a suicide, despite the very unusual nature of the death, but someone thinks otherwise. A mysterious client has hired renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, giving a Southern-fried performance that could be the beginning of a franchise that defines the post-Bond stage of his career) to get to the bottom of… something. What it is, as they say, isn’t exactly clear.
What follows is a murder mystery that upends the standard structure of murder mysteries by the half hour mark… and then keeps twisting and turning. But what Johnson has done here is nothing short of a miracle, and may represent the best work of his career to date – he’s made a movie that consistently upends expectations but remains satisfying, he’s made a movie that feels breezy and loose but that is meticulously structured, and he’s created characters who are absolutely awful but of whom you can’t get enough. And he’s centered all of this on character; this isn’t a whodunnit with preposterous turns or logic-defying methods of murder. The movie has complexity but it isn’t hard to follow, and the film tackles actual real world issues but remains absolutely light and funny the whole time.
But what’s most surprising – although it shouldn’t be, considering the rest of Johnson’s filmography – is how kind the movie is. Here’s where I’m going to get into some spoilers, and I do hope you’ve already seen the film before reading this, because it would be absolutely a crime to rob you of the joy of experiencing this film as fresh as possible. If you haven’t seen the movie please stop reading now, go see the movie and then immediately return here!
Okay, back to business.
The Thrombey family is terrible, and their terribleness doesn’t cut down political lines. The more leftie ones – Joni (Toni Collette), the Gwyneth Paltrow of the group and Meg (Katherine Langford), the SJW of the family – are just as self-centered, disloyal and essentially greedy as all the rest. The Thrombeys are each gripped by grotesque self-interest, no matter their politics.
But they do have plenty of politics. Knives Out has a shockingly political edge to it, with immigration, racism, MAGA, alt-right trolls and kids in cages at the border playing into the events. None of these things are plot specific – you could lift the plot mechanics of Knives Out and put it into any era that has toxicology reports – but they’re what the movie is really about. On the one hand, like jokes about Twitter and references to Netflix, these things are flavors that ground the whodunnit in time and place, but on the other hand I think they’re what Rian Johnson is really interested in exploring.
It’s worth noting that he explores these topics with dead seriousness and a sense of humor. It’s all dependent on the extraordinary performance of Ana de Armas as Marta, Harlan’s nurse. de Armas is truly incredible, and she’s so good I am now prepared to be enormously disappointed when she gets nothing to do in No Time to Die, the next 007 movie. She’s funny and warm, open but not naive, optimistic and eternally kind. It’s impossible not to root for her.
Marta’s thing is that she can’t lie – she vomits at so much the thought of ‘untruthing.’ Which is something of a problem for her, as she’s the one who killed Harlan… or so she thinks. Very early in the film it’s revealed that Marta seemingly accidentally overdosed Harlan on morphine and, rather than see his beloved and kind nurse get in trouble and her undocumented mother get deported, he slits his own throat. It’s a big move, but Harlan has another reason for it – he has just amended his will to cut out his whole family, leaving everything to Marta, and he knows that if she is found to have accidentally killed him she will not get a dime and his awful relatives will get everything.
So for most of the movie the central concern is not quite ‘whodunnit’ so much as how Marta is going to navigate the moral grey areas she must cross – grey areas she inherently disdains. While she briefly tries to engage in skullduggery, Marta is punished at every turn with a regurgitory reflex, her very essence rebelling against the act of prevarication. She is physically incapable of covering up her role in events, which is what makes her a perfect Rian Johnson character.
See, Johnson makes crime genre movies that are about people who are really too nice to be in crime movies. His characters would love to be vicious criminals or hardboiled detectives, but they always have too much heart to really be dirty or mean. Even in his Star Wars film characters are tempted to not care, to become the toughest, grittiest versions of themselves and just cannot get over the hump. Johnson believes that some people, at the very least, are inherently good, and that their goodness shines through in a dirty world.
And so Marta wins by being kind and generous at every turn. She makes a half-hearted attempt at deception, but quickly comes around to just blurting out the truth (as she understands it) and is immediately relieved. Baddie Ransom Thrombey (Chris Evans in a performance that is so wonderful especially because of how severely it contrasts with his decade as Steve Rogers – playing against type can be truly invigorating for actor and audience) has a plot that is entirely predicated on Marta being as selfish and greedy as everyone else in the film (even housekeeper Fran, the only person actually murdered in the movie, seeks to blackmail for personal gain rather than bring about any kind of justice). Marta wins not by outplaying Ransom but rather by simply being the good and kind and capable person she naturally is; her inability to lie is not a problem, it’s her superpower.
In the end we’re left with an image of the Thrombey clan – white, rich, many bigoted, all greedy – milling outside what was once their own home while the immigrant nurse to whom they first condescended and later raged stands on the balcony above them, owner of the house, holding the patriarch’s signifying coffee mug. That’s where the movie leaves us – the immigrant taking over the white man’s home (that he, in information given in a throwaway joke, got from another immigrant) – and I guess you could take that, if you were of the political persuasion of the masturbating Nazi child, as a cliffhanger. But Johnson has made it clear – Marta is going to take care of these people. She recognizes that this is part of why Harlan left her everything and them nothing; she’s inherited not only the home and the books and the money but the responsibility. And it seems to me that Harlan recognized that he didn’t have the kind of inherent goodness in him to shape his family into better people (early in the film it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the whole death is some kind of set-up by the overly dramatic Harlan), but that Marta does.
And so Johnson presents us the coming demographic shift in this country as a net positive; he doesn’t need characters to debate Richard’s (Don Johnson, no relation) blandly centrist racism because he just simply has Marta and her family be real people for whom we root. The masturbating Nazi child doesn’t get any comeuppance, no splattering of dog shit or pantsing or other crowd-pleasing humiliation, because his comeuppance comes in the form of being legitimately cared for by the kind of person he hates. That’s the big twist of the knife!
Good prevails not because it’s craftier or it takes on the tactics of the bad or because it gives into the grey areas. Good prevails because it’s good, and that, in Rian Johnson’s moral universe, is the natural order of things. Because Johnson walks us through the mud (literally) to get there, the ending doesn’t feel schlocky or preachy but earned. That makes Knives Out a really unique experience – a movie that reflects the world we live in today, but that offers us some hope about it.