KNIVES OUT: A Mystery Maven’s Perspective

I do have a few friends who care what I have to say about movies. And yet, while I stated right at the startthat I would talk about films in this space, usually when I want to offer an opinion about something I’ve seen, I dash off a paragraph on Facebook. It seems that Ah Sweet Mystery has essentially evolved into a paradigm for single-minded genre specific commentary.

And yet here I am: writing about a film on the blog. Of course, the film is a mystery; what’s more, it is that rarity of things . . . a modern whodunit! Even more tantalizing is the fact that it offers a totally original story enshrined in the modern world while at the same time it embodies the tropes of classic detective fiction. In short, I’ve been salivating to see this movie for months!!!!!!

I’m not really here to write a review: you can troll every major newspaper and tons of on-line film gurus to find out if they liked it. But for my friends who don’t usually follow my blog but clicked the link because they want to find out if they should see this movie, I say . . . you certainly should. It’s wonderful fun, slickly directed and acted to the teeth by a cast that is clearly having a ball. In fact, I want everyone I know to see it and rave and tell their friends so that somebody in Hollywood will take note that, on the same weekend that Frozen 2 played in a thousand times as many houses as Knives Out, this little film kicked ass and should prompt others to revive the flagging whodunit genre so that we don’t have to rely on dreck like the Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston mediocrity Murder Mystery on Netflix.

The New York Times review, which is positive in a lukewarm way, describes Knives Out as “an energetic, showy take on a dusty Agatha Christie-style murder mystery.” (The reviewer refers to her twice in the same way: under the article’s title we find, “Rian Johnson dusts off Agatha Christie . . . “) Thank you, Manohla Dargis, we get the point – Christie is tired old stuff that needs to be given a shot to work with modern audiences.

CrookedBanner

But I’ll say this for director Johnson: using wholly original material of his own making, he shows more understanding of, and respect for, Christie’s oeuvre than the makers of the last few Christie adaptations have. The film of Crooked House was faithful to the source but arid, while the Sarah Phelps’ The A.B.C. Murders infused gobs of sex, violence and disease into the original to make it more “relevant.” And the less said about the BBC Tommy and Tuppence series, the better. No, Johnson shows a command for the genre and an abiding love for it through major plot points and tiny touches. I want to mention just one of the latter because I might be the only person on earth who notices it: Christopher Plummer plays a key role here, and his name is Harlan Thrombey. I sat in that theatre for several minutes trying to figure out why that name sounded so familiar – and then it hit me! I don’t know if this is pure coincidence, or if Mr. Johnson and I need to have lunch someday because we are soul mates. Check this link out, and then let me know if you think I’m crazy.

I want to speak about the plot as little as possible. As my mystery-loving friends know, spoilers can not only ruin an experience, they can damage a friendship. I waited until after I saw the film to read any reviews, where I learned that the journalists covering the film were subjected to a pre-show video by the director begging them not to ruin any surprises for the audience. The reviews I read tried to skirt this issue by giving a bare bones synopsis of the plot, but then they would ruin some of the running gags and character surprises. I was lucky enough to view the film with none of this information to lessen the impact, and I want to give that same opportunity to all of you.

At the same time, I want to make an assurance to my mystery reading friends that this is a good mystery. It is a modern film that pays homage to the classic writers and their methods in interesting filmic ways. Some of these methods may make you think you have figured out where the film is going. The signs may be subtle: for example, look at the décor of the house at the beginning. It will remind the savvier mystery fan of another mystery, which will lead you to make assumptions about a certain character. (I will not say here if your assumptions are right or wrong. Let’s save all those conversations for the comments below.)

CRWOIGE44YI6TBTCTP6SHM4H5A

And while there is a Christie-like atmosphere in the central conceit of a family gathering in the country for the patriarch’s birthday (that’s all the plot you get from me!), there are also elements of Carr, who liked to unveil his solutions part by part, while still keeping you in the dark until the end. Johnson achieves this in fine fashion through the use of flashbacks, which peel away the layers of mystery like an onion only to unveil new conundrums and to cause you to rethink your feelings about one character after another.

As I watched, I was reminded of Taken at the Flood, one of Christie’s most contextually relevant novels. There are quite a few similarities between the Cloade family and the Thrombeys of Knives Out, and while Flood presented a traditional murder mystery with the travails of post-war England as a most pertinent background to the action, the issue that stands out in the newer story is class, and more specifically the current immigrant experience. It lends a sense of serious import to the proceedings without in any way spoiling the fun; in fact, some of the running gags I want you to discover for yourself are related to this issue.

knivesTOPALT-800x530                          This made me think of Game of Thrones! Intentional? Or not???

Those of us whose love for the genre all but forces us to view the film through a meta-cognitive lens are going to check off the classic elements one by one and see which we find acceptable and which we find wanting. I thought Johnson made sunshine out of his utilization of the country house mystery and the dysfunctional family, but all of this follows along fairly traditional lines. A more interesting, and perhaps more divisive, discussion might be made over the film’s sleuth, a Poirot from the deep South named Benoit Blanc. I have no issue with Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the character; it is delightful. But the script mildly subverts the position we usually find this all-important character in when reading a traditional mystery. Maybe I’m the only one who will see it, and frankly, I don’t know yet how I feel about it.

LAST OF SHEILA, THE
Title: LAST OF SHEILA, THE • Pers: MASON, JAMES / WELCH, RAQUEL / HACKETT, JOAN / McSHANE, IAN / CANNON, DYAN / BENJAMIN, RICHARD • Year: 1973 • Dir: ROSS, HERBERT • Ref: LAS038AA • Credit: [ WARNER BROS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]
For many true puzzle crime addicts, the gold standard of films is The Last of Sheila. To them I want to say right away that Knives Out isn’t going to change your mind, as it’s not nearly the intellectual exercise that Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins offered us. The ending is satisfying and contains surprises, but it isn’t overly cerebral like Sheila  or flashy like some of Christie’s best solutions. I can’t honestly say that, as a puzzle, it plays completely fair, although it sort of does. At any rate, the film is a full-force celebration of my favorite genre, and it accomplishes what any good film should – it entertains and amuses us.

There you have it: my (hopefully) spoiler-free thousand+ words on Knives Out. I had a blast watching it and look forward to seeing it again. I look forward even more to dissecting it with others. So here’s the deal: I hereby declare the comments section below SPOILER TERRITORY!!! Pay attention to this: if you want to talk about the movie, including the solution or the clues or other elements that one would do better to discover first by watching the film, then you are welcome to do so below.

If you have NOT watched the film, then DON’T READ THE COMMENTS!!! If you want to reply to this blog without going there, hit me up on Facebook!

I hope I have made this clear. I wouldn’t want anyone reading the comments and then complaining that the film has been ruined for them. Really!!! I’ve gone 150 words past 1000 to make that clear.

b48f51abc5182c4ecd04dbec19235df6

I want to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving! Gather with your loved ones, turn your phones off, avoid discussing politics for one day, and eat your fill without guilt. Oh, and try not to murder anybody.

37 thoughts on “KNIVES OUT: A Mystery Maven’s Perspective

  1. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, Brad! And thanks for your thoughts on Knives Out. I keep hearing it’s a fine film and a good mystery, too. And the fact that you refer to it as a ‘modern whodunit’ appeals even more to me. OK, so I know one film I’ll be seeing…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s modern, Margot, in the sense that certain characters and relationships reflect the actual world around us, so I never felt like the story was taking place in a vague semblance of reality. I won’t delve further into this idea with you before you see it! I have some decency!!! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Brad, great review. I really enjoyed KNIVES OUT at a festival screening last month and it deserves to do well commercially, not least for its sense of humour as well as clever plot. And yeah, the insanely clever SHEILA is damn fabulous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, I always dream big, Sergio, and hope that this will lead to further clever, funny mystery films. This reminded me of Anthony Horowitz’ Magpie Murders, and I believe we might see more of Atticus Pund one of these days, so why not more clever onscreen mysteries?!?

      Like

      1. John, I want to say I heard this from JJ or someone IN England that in addition to several more sequels to The Word Is Murder, Horowitz planned another Pund book. Whether I’m mis-stating I have no idea, and I don’t know if it would be an actual Pund novel or another story about the publisher.

        Like

  3. SPOILER ALERT !

    SPOILER ALERT !

    SPOILER ALERT !

    (Yes, I know that you have already declared this as spoiler territory, but still some will complain that they simply skimmed your post to avoid spoilers and hence missed this point!)

    I have seen this film and rate it as EXCELLENT !
    But one thing I didn’t understand. Fran meets Ransom alone in an isolated place though she knows he is a culprit and also told him that she knows this. What did Fran expect hm to do ? Congratulate her on her cleverness ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can only guess what was running through Fran’s mind: she thought she had witnessed Ransom mucking about with Harlan’s medicine, and yet when she got the toxicology report there was so evidence of poison. She must have been confused waiting there, but when Ransom appeared it signaled to her that she had been right!

      I have a “fair play” question, though: do we ever hear Ransom’s first name mentioned before Blanc confronts him in the end?

      Like

      1. Actually, the numbers in the toxicology report make no sense to Fran. But if Ransom is guilty, he will meet her. This is clearly stated by the detective (just after time 1.55 of the film)
        Regarding the first name of Ransom. I’ll have to see the film again to answer your question !

        Like

      2. I saw the film again !
        Just after time 1.00 of the film, Ransom comes to the house when the dogs bark furiously at him. When the police ask his name, he says, “Call me Ransom, my middle name. Only the help calls me Hugh.”
        So there is fair play !

        Like

      3. What kind of supernatural being are you?!? I asked you this question 10 minutes ago! How could you have seen the movie again in that short space of time??? 🧐🧐🧐

        Like

    2. It’s just a common trope isn’t it – either the innocent witness who lets slip their knowledge or the bungling blackmailer, both of whom get bumped off in the third quarter to move the story along.

      Like

      1. Yes, I thought her object was blackmail-and not very smart blackmail, a la Louise Bourget in Death On The Nile.

        Like

  4. Hi Brad. I freaking loved this movie. I assume the other mystery suggested by the decor of the house was Sleuth? I loved that movie too but I suspect this one will better reward rewatching…

    Like

  5. I saw this last night, thanks to recommendations from yourself and other members of the GAD Facebook group.

    When I first read a newspaper review of this and saw the name of Harlan Thrombey I immediately thought of the Choose Your Own Adventure book – it can’t be a coincidence.

    My own theory, which didn’t quite fit with some of Marta’s later actions, but which I rode doggedly to the end, was that Marta, knowing about the will, deliberately pretended to have given the wrong medication, knowing that Harlan loved her and knowing his devious mind, in order to trick him into suicide. I had the idea that the regurgitative reflex to lying was something she had concocted a long time ago, so that when she actually wanted to hide a lie she would be able to. I was still half-expecting a final twist at the end that somehow she had masterminded everything.

    I was reminded of Sleuth – must re-watch that – and was hoping that something in the décor would prove to be a significant visual clue.

    Would be interested to know what you mean by “But the script mildly subverts the position we usually find this all-important character in when reading a traditional mystery. Maybe I’m the only one who will see it, and frankly, I don’t know yet how I feel about it.”

    It was definitely a lot of fun and if the Last of Sheila is superior then I must get a copy of that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I went back and forth on Marta as well. Either the whole vomit gag was going to give her away at the end, or it would do what it ended up doing and essentially save her. The current immigration situation in America is so dire that ultimately I couldn’t believe Johnson would make Marta the killer without letting her get away with it. No, this reminds me a bit of Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage in that the story is told less from the detective’s point of view than that of the main suspect, who hides relevant information from Fell and makes himself look guilty.

      Like

      1. Yes! When I was trying to think what classic books this reminded me of, Problem of the Wire Cage was one that came to mind! Glad to find someone else picked up on that. I did feel that the film had a more Carrian or Brandian tone to it than a Christie tone. At the risk of being blasphemous, I might say Knives Out is the better work (!) compared to Wire Cage, which is even a favourite Carr of mine. Just because it doesn’t fall apart at the end.
        I’d thought they were a little blatant with some of the clues, but they’re all so nicely placed that I felt clever rather than disappointed. The least clued bit was the twist involving the morphine, which I did not get, although I remembered thinking at the time that the crucial flashback was being rather unrealistic about things, but put it down to movie magic – on reaching the end it turned out to be a clue.
        Also, I thought everyone acted their socks off. It was a real good time 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The problem with whodunnit movies, Velleic, is that they just keep rolling along. With books, I can pause and go, “Hey, wait a minute! Wasn’t Aunt Bertha color-blind?!?” and then pore through earlier chapters. I can read as slowly or as quickly as I want! But you can’t stop a movie in the theatre, and you’re surrounded by fools who don’t care nearly as much as you do that this is classic GAD made flesh and that they need to be hit with a cudgel by a clue in order to get it . . . MAYBE!

        Yes, I think I agree with you about rating this above Wire Cage because that final reveal has an element of silliness about the gullibility of the victim that never sat well with me, while everything in the movie seems to work just right!

        Like

      3. It’s actually not the solution that makes me mark it down – given that most impossible solutions are a bit out there in the first place, this isn’t that much worse. No, I mean the *SPOILERS* second murder *END SPOILER* which just overcomplicates things and makes no sense whatsoever, and was certainly only added to make the book longer. After that I don’t think the book can really recover.
        Actually *POSSIBLE KNIVES OUT SPOILERS* the similar bit of the movie is probably the weakest bit of it, since someone just acts in a rather stupid way. I guess it is a rather common trope in crime fiction. *END SPOILER*

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Ah, the GAD blackmailer! He/she is always a remarkably stupid figure. I call it The Louise Bourget Effect. Why did Louise make her case in front of Poirot? Why didn’t she wait until she had left the boat? Why didn’t she do this anonymously??? The possibility of all that money + the feeling of power that knowledge always grants = Dead Stupid Person. In The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side there are TWO of them, and they both die!

        Granted, the housekeeper in the film had the added emotion of outrage! Her reaction when the killer entered the abandoned store proved this: she couldn’t believe her own eyes and X taking the bait proved that her beloved Harlan had been murdered! She was furious, which made her off her guard when the killer charged her.

        So, yes, I agree that most blackmailer deaths serve to push the action along and fill some space, but I thought it worked out better in the film than in most of the books I’ve read.

        Like

  6. Well, first I have to brag about the movie experience I got, which probably everyone else in the theater was pissed, but I was in heaven. The power went out in the entire theater in the bar scene with Ransom and Marta for about two minutes, but then it took them like twenty minutes to get all their systems back online and get the movies restarted. AHHH!!!! The exquisite torture! The privilege of extra time to just THINK and try to figure out what was going on. It was an Agatha Christie fan’s dream!!!

    I did more or less guess, not because the mystery wasn’t well told, just because logic said all star cast or no they did NOT hire Captain America just to have him almost completely absent for the first 1/2 of the film, and then play a generic bad boy that could be played by anybody. But whether Marta was playing him or he was playing Marta I wasn’t sure. My husband kept thinking that everyone saying Marta was from a different country was a clue-sharp observation there-but I guess it was just meant to show what self-absorbed assholes they all were.

    I also hoped Daniel Craig’s atrocious accent was going somewhere and we’d find out he had some other backstory.

    Overall, I completely loved it. It passed what to me is the biggest test of a mystery-after you’ve seen/read it and know the solution, is it worth seeing/reading twice? A lot of mystery novels and films don’t pass this test-the lamentable Crooked House movie being one. Knives Out passes with flying colors.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I still get angry over Crooked House! They announced it years ago, with Julie Freaking Andrews of all people playing Edith, and then made us wait and wait . . . and wait . . . before they tossed all that planning into the crapper and started over. And we wait and wait some more until we get cover art of the poster and I get excited all over – and a little confused: what the heck is Christina Hendricks doing in this movie? And then the release of the film is all weird, suggesting that something is wrong with the film, and I never get to see it in a movie theatre because if it WAS released in one in the U.S. the run lasted for about a minute, and when I finally do see the movie, it’s . . . well, it’s bad.

    Whereas this one made me excited because the advance word was that it was 1. an actual mystery and 2. good! And it was both of these in spades.

    Richard, you are disqualified due to the power outage! 🙂 I knew he was a bad ‘un for the reasons you suggest, but I didn’t understand the nature of the crime. And here is where I question the total fair play of the plot, in that I didn’t realize until Blanc opened the toxicology report – and only then because it hit me as an idea, not because of any “clue” – that there was NO morphine in Thrombey’s system. And even then, I knew only that it exonerated Marta. I missed the whole “Hugh” clue. So consider me baffled . . . and all the happier for it!

    Like

    1. I don’t think the toxicology report violated fair play-in real life those take a while to process. My clue that something hinky was going on was the entire scene with Harlan just didn’t ring true.. First, I didn’t time the scene, but it certainly felt like it took a lot more than 10 minutes after Harlan got the injection till Marta left. Not to mention, who could be that calm and think all that out in five minutes while they believe they were just given a death sentence?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. **SPOILER** That’s one of the many homages to Deathtrap. I picked up on that as well. I was convinced that he had planned an elaborate fake murder ages ago and was waiting for the right opportunity to put it into play. I thought he was going to teach her a lesson and confront her about what I thought was he disingenuous ploy about the accident with the injections. After all, the has a line about fools not knowing the difference between a real knife and a stage prop just before he dies. But that line proves to be a clue to something else that happens in the finale.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Saw it last night. LOVED IT! I couldn’t disagree with you more about it not being fair play. I figured out much of it, but not 100%. I was truly surprised by one of the final reveals. I loved the wholly GAD clues that I completely missed: the dying clue of the second victim, the bits and pieces of dialogue which will be dismissed by most moviegoers as either cheap jokes or as “filler scenes” (a huge nod to all Grand Masters of detective fiction.

    The characters reference the specific lines that are spoken as clues in the final scene. It’s is 100% fair play. You just need to pay attention. Even the mystery writer says something that is a tip off to what is maybe a final surprise to the audience but was obvious to me. When I heard him say that one line I kept waiting for the payoff. And it was done brilliantly. Reminded me of a similar scene in Deathtrap.

    Loved all the visual references to mystery movies of the past like Sleuth, Deathtrap, Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. And there are sly nods to others as well. Did you catch the song that Benoit Blanc is singing in the car while waiting for Marta outside her secret rendezvous spot? {PAUSE to give time to remember} “Losing My Mind” from Sondheim’s FOLLIES. So clever.

    I think too many of you spend too much time hairsplitting stories like these. I think there’s a lot of room for open interpretations. Marta clearly was engineering a lot. She had an affair, she manipulated Harlan by gossiping about the family and cajoled him into disinheriting the family, etc., etc. He actually says this to her prior to his death. No one is absolutely innocent in this story. I loved that part of it because that too is a GAD fiction motif though most moviegoers and mystery readers think it’s a more modern development.

    This was an excellent movie with a very good mystery, not just good as you qualify it. Best of all this movie exceeded my expectations. I thought this would be fun for the cast alone, but I had no idea how it truly is a beautiful homage to the traditional murder mystery and detective fiction in all it’s forms. I may go again just to watch and hear audience reactions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, John, I feel like somehow you’re angry at me for not liking this film enough!! I truly loved it; I didn’t feel I was nitpicking at all. At any rate, I enjoyed the points you brought up; I will look for them when I watch it again.

      Like

  9. SPOILER

    I finally got to see this tonight! And I already want to see it again to look for some things. One thing that I didn’t get: In the scene where Marta asked Blanc when he first suspected her. And he tells her pretty much from the beginning. She wonders why and then camera pans down to her shoes and we see what looks like a spot of blood. Maybe I’m dense but I don’t get why the spot of blood was a tip-off.

    Over all I loved it. I also kindof expected Thrombey to not be dead and this to be a whole elaborate game–especially with the emphasis on how he loved plot twists and games. I had a couple of other theories…one which wound up being half right since it did involve the actual killer–but not acting alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the idea is that if Marta had left before the killer cut Harlan’s throat, there would have been no reason for her to have blood on her shoe. I figure the blood sprayed when he cut his throat in front of her, but that’s not how Blanc would have interpreted it.

      Yes, all the Sleuth props around the house made me think that Harlan was behind something sinister. He was the mastermind . . . of saving Marta. That was a good surprise for me – that Harlan was actually a nice man to nice people.

      Like

      1. I managed to miss the throat-cutting in front of Marta…{TMI, but it’s pretty bad that I’m getting old enough that I can’t sit through a two-hour-ish movie without having to jump up for the facilities…I thought I picked a good moment.}

        One other thought I had….Richard mentioned Craig’s accent above. I’m wondering if they were trying to find an American accent that would stand out (in the East Coast setting) the way Poirot’s does at times with his “Mon Dieu-s” and whatnot.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s