Knives Out
This murder mystery twists the genre to serve its own purposes. (Illustration by Amanda Morgan, Boise State University)
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Knives Out

Rian Johnson’s latest film uses an unconventional whodunnit to look at contemporary issues.

“Knives Out,” the newest film from writer-director Rian Johnson, follows the events surrounding the apparent suicide of a world-renowned author, Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer. As the local detective, Lakeith Stanfield’s character, takes the Thrombey family’s statements, he is interrupted by the hopelessly conspicuous private eye, Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, who has been hired by an unknown party to ensure there was no foul play.

Thrombey’s suicide was preceded by his decision to take away each of the monetary and professional advantages he afforded to his children, so each family member has a motive. This set-up would easily be enough to fill a film on its own, but the narrative is constantly refiguring its approach to the murder mystery genre with each major narrative revelation.

This is welcome as the best murder mysteries upset the basics of the genre; the appeal of a saintly, eccentric super-genius working against a sweaty-palmed criminal wears thin without innovation. Rather than staying beholden to a familiar whodunnit or Columbo-esque howcatchem trajectory, “Knives Out” gathers its greatest pre-denouement thrills from the way it bucks its own archetypal and structural indulgences.

The narrative’s misleading shagginess is disorienting in the way it ostensibly eliminates what we’ve come to expect from murder mysteries, but each change of perspective fits in with the thematic and narrative interests of “Knives Out.” The tried-and-true pleasures of seeing a mystery come to a satisfying conclusion are never sacrificed, as the genre is not treated like something tired but, rather, as something full of possibility.

“Knives Out” begins with shots of eerie human-like figurines and statues, and their eyes are often the focal point of each shot. My immediate interpretation figured the figurines would be representative of a valuable unspoken truth. However, in a film so ready to abruptly shift its apparent aims, the statues — or anything else for that matter — never remain solely what they seem to be.

As elements and characters increase in number and recede from immediate narrative relevance, they often become a tool for the finale’s flood of eureka moments; however, the left-behind elements in the mystery are given a personal relevance to the film’s characters.

By imbuing the forgotten pieces of the story with unexpected humanity, “Knives Out” aligns itself with the aims of Thrombey. Cutting off people from the safety of the sheltered lives they know is merely the first painful step toward something better. The film’s thematic emphasis on the importance of the inessential or overlooked mirrors the narrative function of the murder mystery genre.

While the film’s genre worship is indebted largely to the films and novels of the past, “Knives Out” is looking at the problems of contemporary American values. The movie makes jabs at opposite ends of the political spectrum with its “alt-right troll” and “Social Justice Warrior (SJW) degrees”; however, the film aims its criticism most squarely at the different ways both sides will justify their own desire to maintain what they know. The broad humor of the political references in the first half subtly sets up themes it’ll build on, especially in the film’s final reveal.

The film’s most poignant and effective use of these political undercurrents is how it criticizes people who feel entitled to their own largely unexamined privilege. The family’s reactions are evidence of one simple fact: All bets are off when allowances and family jobs are at risk of being yanked away.

Although “Knives Out” ridicules the stagnancy of an unreflective family, the film also allows some family members to come away from the depths of their greed with an amount of self-awareness. The film’s hopes of seeing the end of uninterrupted lineages of power are reinforced by providing the powerful with a humanity that implies they can grow after being “cut off.”

An interrogation by the police introduces the close-up as a visual shorthand for scrutiny and the absence or embodiment of truth. As each member of the Thrombey family is questioned, the camera will slowly dolly in on the interviewee as a lead up to an objective flashback. The close-ups inevitably back away from a now obvious lie.

The most intense close-ups in “Knives Out” serve as a sort of moral litmus test; a later scene compounds the penetrative effect of the visual motif by eliminating every form of light that could distract from the actor’s face. The film affords the majority of its close-ups to those characters who serve as beacons of truth among a near-ubiquitous feeling of disingenuousness.

Ana De Armas, who plays the protagonist of “Knives Out,” acts almost entirely with her eyes here. Frequently silenced by yammering and her own inability to lie, De Armas portrays Marta Thrombey as constantly navigating and responding to the situations surrounding her.

Her performance demands her to act largely with her eyes, which is both a requirement enforced by the tightness of the framing, a large cast of self-important characters and the immediate needs of each situation. The unostentatious complexity behind the performance builds gradually as the narrative reaches its end.

Working as a perfect counterpart to her restrained performance, Craig’s portentous detective hides nuance behind self-aware and genuine grandiose behavior. The line between where real and affected eccentricity is often hard to determine, which is part of the joy of watching the character.

Rather than expressing the self-importance of the character through artificial gestural quirks, Craig embodies the detective by giving evidence of a person whose life exists beyond his place in the mystery. His chapped, chewed-up lips are just as telling as the moments when he abandons his facade.

Toying with the structure and function of the murder mystery, “Knives Out” reworks even the smallest minutiae of the genre to bolster its ideas about the importance of choosing the illogically humane over self-serving callousness. The film organically and creatively uses the mechanics of a genre to address current political concerns.

Far from a self-consciously “important” film, it never apologizes for aiming to be fun. Like Noah Segan’s cop character, you’ll let the serious proceedings play second fiddle to the dazzling ways in which the pieces of the mystery fall into place.

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