As a writer/director, Rian Johnson’s work hasn’t been impressive so far. He’s shown potential and a creative mind, but he lags behind in a number of key areas as a filmmaker. With Knives Out, you’ll still be able to see that some of those flaws are still present, but noticing what look to be improvements isn’t as difficult as they were before.
Johnson attempts to emulate Agatha Christie with a murder-mystery where everyone is a suspect. When renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead at his estate, Private Investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is enlisted to dig deeper. From Harlan’s family to his devoted staff, the detective sifts through the lives of everyone around as he does all he can to uncover the truth behind the celebrated writer’s untimely death.
From a personal standpoint, Knives Out doesn’t reach as high as it could. That would take more detail and more development as far as the elements of mystery are concerned. Admittedly, there’s a lot that would have to go into building a “whodunit,” and honestly, Rian Johnson doesn’t have the kind of skillset to effectively make one. Maybe he’ll develop it at some point, but he hasn’t shown that type of ability as of this moment.
With that being said, Knives Out still manages to be the best movie that I’ve seen from Rian Johnson so far. I haven’t seen and have no interest in seeing Brick, so I can’t speak on that one. Out of the others, Knives Out is clearly at the top. This ends up being the most watchable and most well-structured film that I’ve seen from him. There’s a chance that maybe Brick is superior to this one, but I know that Looper and The Last Jedi are most certainly not.
Unlike the other two from him that I’ve seen, Knives Out actually makes sense for the most part. Not only that, he doesn’t waste significant amounts of time by including plot points and side stories that don’t amount to anything like he did in Last Jedi. No, this time he made sure that the majority of what we get is actually necessary. That’s one reason why it works as well as it does and doesn’t feel like it’s all just a complete waste of time.
By not including so many unnecessary features, a movie is allowed to feel tighter and more “to the point.” That’s one thing that makes Knives Out easier to digest even though it doesn’t have the quality behind it that I would have wanted it to. In stripping it down and mostly sticking to the main plot, we get a smoother ride and a film that more structure than I had anticipated.
Johnson also showed improvements here by reducing the number of plot holes in his work. There are a few here, but they’re nothing that would generally take away a movie. He had major issues with this in the other two movies (Looper and Last Jedi) of his that I’ve seen. The plot holes there were massive, aggravating, and took from the interesting ideas that he was trying to implement.
There are a few conveniences in the film to help him along the way that are used to move the story forward and get the characters where they need to be, but that’s is also not a huge factor in my mind since he doesn’t completely depend on them to bail him out. Overall, this is progress in my opinion. Maybe this means that he’s on his way to becoming a filmmaker of genuine substance? If so, we may all benefit from this.
A feature that would be difficult to ignore for anyone would be the politics in Knives Out. Like most, I’m the type of person who doesn’t really care for politics in film one way or another. The only time I usually ever take it into account is when the movie itself is about actual politics or if what’s included is used to effectively tell a story (see Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther as an example). Outside of that, it’s something I see as completely irrelevant.
I’m only really talking about it here because it’s so hard to ignore. In general, this stuff isn’t done subliminally these days like it was in past generations. In years past, you could watch movies like Star Wars or fall in love with characters like the X-Men and not realize there was some sort of political message behind any of it. Ultimately, when you watched or read that stuff, you were just looking to be entertained.
These days, it’s so blatant, it’s nearly impossible to overlook even if you tried. That’s where we stand with Knives Out, but they manage to take it even further. This will surely impact the viewing experiences of those who care about this kind of thing. Virtually all of the politics are focused on Donald Trump and immigration. Depending on what side you sit on, some will appreciate these digs and the subject matter, while others will not.
In Knives Out, Johnson makes sure to include it as much as possible. Some of what he includes fits into the narrative, but a good chunk of it is forced and doesn’t need to be here. In fact, if you remove the politics, almost everything in the movie stays the same. This makes the messages feel preachy, inauthentic and just a way for Johnson and whoever else to squeeze their politics into the movie.
Taking stances against Trump, other politicians, or certain political viewpoints and practices in some fashion is perfectly fine. However, I do believe that it should be done in a way that meshes better and more consistently with the main story of your film. This is another one of those areas where Johnson still has to improve. Doing so would allow him (as well as others) to make even tighter and more efficient films.
With all of that out of the way, I’ll finally focus on the movie as a movie. Although it fashions itself as a mystery, Knives Out is heavily reliant on comedy. There’s a ton of it here right from the start, but I didn’t find any of it to be funny outside of the one donut joke. In spite of that, I can say that a ton of people at the screening I attended did find a number of things to laugh at.
Like a lot of things in this world, comedy is subjective and comes down to a matter of taste. If your comedic tastes are different from mine, you may respond to what’s here more than I did. If so, you’ll also likely have a better time watching Knives Out. Based on the reactions from others, there’s at least a chance that you’ll be at least somewhat amused. It just wasn’t for me and is one of the weaker parts of the movie.
As far as the mystery, there isn’t much of that really. The majority of the mystery that’s here is just handed to us since there are very few clues for us to play around with. Because of this, it never tries to challenge the audience as Johnson just gives us all the details. Some of that comes early on but in other instances, what we need to know is given to us late. Either way, it’s the type of mystery where the viewers are only spectators and only the characters are allowed to play along.
I tend to get excited when I see the potential for a good mystery because it gives those of us watching a chance to be active participants. Because that isn’t what happens here, most of the potential suspense is removed. Still, I can say that it’s all crafted well and that the final twist is handled in an acceptable way even if Johnson simply reveals that too.
Speaking of that reveal, you may be able to figure that out before he tells you. Doing it precisely the way he decided to do it allows us to narrow it down fairly quickly. Even if you don’t guess exactly who it is, just trying even a little bit will likely leave you with only a couple of possibilities left.
For someone looking for the kind of “whodunit” that I was hoping for, this could limit how rewatchable Knives Out is. When films like this are done right, you can go back to see what you missed the first time you saw it. With that appeal missing, you’re probably going to be watching this for the characters, the comedy, and maybe the politics if you decide to see it again at some point in time.
I say MAYBE to the politics because most of this stuff probably won’t be all that relevant in five years or so. People will be onto something else and Trump won’t be in office by then. When thinking about it, this approach will likely prevent Knives Out from being the kind of timeless picture that it could have been had Johnson chose to go in another direction instead of focusing on a few specific talking points of 2019.
If I can point out anything else about this movie, it has to be about the role of Ana de Armas in all of this. I’ve seen her in a few projects before this, but this might be her meatiest role yet. That wasn’t expected, but she proved to be more than capable of handling the extra responsibility. In reality, if she were a bigger star, she would have been the first name mentioned when talking about the actors seeing as she’s basically the film’s protagonist.
The other actors also deliver strong performances themselves. I like that each of them was willing to give so much effort even though some of them had less screen time than I had anticipated. Maybe their scenes were cut, but it could also speak to their professionalism and enthusiasm for the project. If you make movies, those are the types of people you want to work with.
In closing, I’ll say that Knives Out represents a positive move forward for Rian Johnson and is a vast improvement over what I’ve seen from him in the past. Although it has its issues, I feel that there’s at least an audience for this movie. It really boils down to how well you receive the political angles it takes (if you care) and how much you enjoy this brand of comedy that he tries to incorporate.
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Ana de Armas
Jamie Lee Curtis
Film Length: 131 minutes
Release Date: November 27, 2019
Distributor: Lionsgate Films
- Score - 6/106/10