Knives Out

Knives Out ★★★½

It is reasonable to state that Rian Johnson’s filmmaking career is built upon the idea of warping and re-engineering genres, from film noir in his debut Brick to caper in Brothers Bloom and science-fiction in Looper. Even his contribution to the Star Wars series fits within this grand modus operandi of taking well-worn tropes and templates and re-shaping them into new constructs without necessarily losing their identity, despite the fact it was a massive production steered by the combined strength of the invisible hand of Disney executives and the pitchfork-and-torch mob rule of the fanbase. Therefore, I found it intriguing when I learned that Johnson was setting his sights on a yet another stale genre – perhaps one of the most thoroughly calcified and rigid templates found in storytelling – the classical Doyle/Christie murder mystery commonly referred to as a ‘whodunit’.

I find there are two major modes one could assume to enjoy watching a whodunit: a participatory and an observatory one. The former involves the viewer donning a detective hat and attempting to outsmart the protagonist and figure out who the killer is ahead of schedule. This of course requires the narrative to be constructive in such a way so as to allow it by leaving a trail of breadcrumbs hidden between the lines. Thus, even if the viewer ends up outwitted by the filmmaker in the end, the movie will retain substantial re-watch appeal because one could imagine wanting to examine how the answers were hiding in plain sight all along and how the filmmaker has manipulated our gaze to focus elsewhere instead. The latter of the two, the observatory mode, assumes there is very little chance the viewer can successfully apply logic to deduce what happened, who did it and why, because the filmmakers may be withholding vital information and dispense it as they see fit. As a result, the viewer is left in a completely passive position and thus the enjoyment has to be derived from elsewhere. In comparative terms, the former would be equivalent to inviting the viewer to play a game of Cluedo with the filmmaker and the cast while the latter would be more akin to being invited to spectate such a game played at a competitive level. Of course, while one may have personal inclinations towards either of the two, I don’t think it is possible to find an objectively better approach to this type of storytelling and there are great examples in both camps to prove it.

Upon a cursory examination Knives Out seemingly looks as though it wanted to be both, which I immediately rationalized as Johnson’s genre manoeuvring. This is because from the very opening scenes, the filmmaker keeps dropping these little hints and inaccuracies and peppers the narrative with little nudges, some of which were almost too obvious for their own good, that I thought were designed to be picked up by the keen viewer for the purpose of solving the puzzle. But I think this assumption is incorrect. I don’t think Johnson ever intended for the viewer to keep up for the entire duration of the story, as he was staging a whole string of twists, turns and sudden reveals delivered at a deliberate pace. I think he was mainly interested in convincing the viewers they could figure everything out by nudging them along with little such little character nuggets like everyone consistently erroneously diagnosing Marta’s country of origin, admitting they were outvoted as to whether she should be invited to the funeral and some even more telling moments that should get every aspiring detective to say ‘hold on, I think this is important’.

But then again, once it is revealed (rather early on) that the entire progression of the narrative is founded upon the notion of playing fast and loose with the truth, it becomes apparent that we are supposed to observe rather than participate in this star-studded game of Cluedo. It is a bit of an admission that Johnson cares about the journey at least equally as he cares about where it leads. And once this is established and the viewer comes to terms with the fact that audience participation isn’t exactly encouraged, the experience of watching Knives Out changes a bit. While the filmmaker still requires us to keep our eyes peeled as he prods the story along at a formidable pace and dishes out character details left and right, he leaves us a bit of room to take in the atmosphere and examine the environment. And what we see is an ensemble cast of utter caricatures defined by their accents and little affectations as they plough through their engineered lines in a deliberately stylized way. While it is fun on many occasions to just sit and enjoy Jamie Lee Curtis’s comedic timing and Daniel Craig’s faux Foghorn Leghorn drawl, it quickly becomes apparent that none of what’s transpiring on the screen means anything to anybody here; it is just a game of Cluedo and I am the spectator. There is no depth here. One could argue that nothing thematically meaningful was ever knowingly sown into the fabric of the narrative, but I’d have been much happier if I could think what I witnessed was a bit more than just a storytelling exercise or a challenge for the filmmaker and his cast of highly talented actors.

Because that’s what Knives Out feels to me. It is a test of filmmaking aptitude for Rian Johnson who wanted to reinvent a murder mystery by introducing a modicum of relativism into the equation and drawing heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s legacy who was a well-known master of manipulating the information he dished out to the audience. Hence, although the film is decidedly entertaining as it goes along and offers a satisfying conclusion to its complex plot of lies, deceit, manipulation and quirky twists on classical genre solutions, I don’t think I am ready to join the bandwagon of universal acclaim that formed while the film was completing its festival circuit. It is a competent experiment in breathing life into a positively fossilized mode of storytelling that offers a lot of good quality entertainment, but it falls short of its aspiration to redefine the structure of a whodunit mystery. And most importantly, while I don’t think there is a single dull moment in the entire film, somehow I don’t think I feel immediately drawn to revisit it in the foreseeable future.

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