Knives Out

Knives Out ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I had to write about mystery films for school, in which I described the plot, detective, clues presented, the way the tension was created, and believability of the outcome of the film. I had to choose three mystery films to write about. I chose Rian Johnson's Knives Out, David Fincher's Zodiac, and Jonathan Lynn's Clue. This is what I wrote on Knives Out (WARNING: it's long, it's like 8 1/2 pages long (it was supposed to be 2-3 paragraphs)):

“Knives Out”
Directed by Rian Johnson
Released in the year 2019

The film’s plot centers around the eccentric, entitled, rich Thrombey family, only rich from the patriarch, Harlan Thrombey (played by Christopher Plummer) and his massively successful series of mystery novels (much akin to Stephen King). The day after Harlan’s eighty-fifth birthday party, he is found dead in his study, seemingly having committed suicide via a slit throat. World-famous detective Benoit Blanc (played masterfully by Daniel Craig, using a Southern drawl accent) is brought in to help solve the case, in which he uncovers many unpredictable clues and befriends Harlan’s nurse, Marta Cabrera (wonderfully played by Ana de Armas), in an effort to help crack the case.

The film begins with a series of interviews with members of the family, where we meet Linda Drysdale (née Thrombey) (played by Jaime Lee Curtis), Harlan’s favorite child and owner of her own real-estate company, her husband Richard Drysdale (played by Don Johnson), the kind of deeply racist man who considers being called a racist to be the worst insult, Walt Thrombey (played by Michael Shannon), Harlan’s youngest son and CEO of Harlan’s publishing company, “Blood Like Wine,” Joni Thrombey (played by Toni Collette), daughter-in-law to Harlan (after being widowed by his deceased son, Neil) and lifestyle guru, Meg Thrombey (played by Katharine Langford), Joni’s daughter, Donna Thrombey (played by Riki Lindholme), Walt’s wife, Jacob Thrombey (played by Jaeden Martell), Walt and Donna’s politically active, alt-right, online-troll of a son (Richard even says of him, “the boy is literally a Nazi”), and Greatnana Wanetta (played by K Callen), Harlan’s elderly and largely senile mother. A solid timeline is established, leaving the local detective Lieutenant Elliot (played by Lakeih Stanfield) and state trooper Trooper Wagner (played by Noah Segan) finding the answer to be suicide. Blanc isn’t convinced, as he decides to question Marta last. In questioning her (going a lot less hard on her than the Thrombeys), through his knowledge that Marta uncontrollably vomits after even the faintest lie, he discovers that the day prior, the day/night of the party, Richard was confronted about his affair, with Harlan threatening to tell Linda if he didn’t first, Joni had been stealing some of Meg’s college tuition money (as well as receiving a yearly allowance), and Harlan had decided to cut her off from it, and that Walt had been fired as CEO of Blood Like Wine by Harlan in the midst of the party, all things the individual family members kept to themselves. While he acknowledges that none of these things are likely motives for murder, Blanc still sees that it shows that the Thrombeys have no problem with lying. Blanc also recognizes that he dodged a very important question as well: Linda asked who hired him. Blanc does not actually know. The previous day, an envelope was at his door, containing a newspaper clipping of Harlan’s death and a wad of cash.

When Marta must come in for a formal interview, the film hard cuts to the night of Harlan’s party. After the party was over and the large majority of the family had gone to bed, Harlan insisted Marta and him play their nightly game of Go. Marta beats him, as she does most nights, because she isn’t playing to win, she’s playing to “make a beautiful pattern.” Marta goes to give Harlan his nightly medication. However, upon closer inspection she sees she has administered three-hundred grams of Morphine (something she is supposed to only give about five grams). She scrambles to find the Naloxon (the antidote) in her medical bag to no avail. She attempts to call the police, but Harlan stops her. She attempts to get the family for help, but Harlan trips her, causing a bang, causing Joni to go upstairs to check on them. After Joni leaves, Harlan has made his choice: he is going to die, there is no stopping it. Having the knowledge that Marta’s mother is an undocumented, illegal immigrant, he knows he must get her out of this, so she can go from suspect number one, to seemingly an impossibility. Harlan tells Marta the plan:
1. Marta must go downstairs, make a lot of noise, and leave, calling attention to the time (midnight) to Walt and Jacob sitting outside.
2. Marta must drive off, but take the road before the carved elephant (or was it after the carved elephant? Harlan has an inner monologue about which it is, which will lead to complications later), in order to avoid the security cameras.
3. Marta must park in the woods outside of the estate, walk up past the gate, greet the dogs (who shouldn’t bark, as they are familiar with Marta), and climb the trellis leading up to the second floor window-disguised-as-a-painting to get in.
4. Once inside, Marta must walk to Harlan’s room, and put on his cap and robe.
5. Marta must walk down the creaky stairs (which awake Linda, as she is a light sleeper) to be seen by Walt (through the glazed window) and is told to go to bed.
6. Once back upstairs, Marta must ditch the cap and robe and climb back down the trellis, making sure not to be seen (Greatnana sees her and remarks, “Ransom, you’re back again already?” This will come back later).
7. Leave the premises.
After he tells her this, Marta becomes scared, and reminds Harlan that, if questioned, she can’t lie. Harlan then tells her to tell fragments of the truth. Marta still says she can’t do it. Harlan tells her she has to and forces her out of the room. She barges back in only to see Harlan laying on his couch, with a knife to this throat, saying, “If you do as I say, everything will be just fine. I promise.” Harlan then abruptly slits his own throat, and Marta is shaken. Nonetheless, she completes the plan. Cutting back to the interview with Blanc, she tells him fragments of the story, and Blanc thanks her for her time, and that it matches up pretty well with the rest of the timeline. At Harlan’s wake that night, we flashback to Harlan’s party, when Richard and Joni got into a heated discussion regarding immigrants entering the country, and backhandedly complimenting Marta. Marta also recalls yelling going on in Harlan’s office, and Ransom (just wait) barging out and leaving the party abruptly. Back in the present, Marta has a panic attack of some sorts, so Fran (Harlan’s housekeeper) and Meg offer her weed to calm her down. Marta declines. Meg sees this as an opportunity for Walt to tell Marta that, come the Will reading the following day, she will receive a portion of it from the Thrombeys as a way to show that she is “part of the family.” Marta walks outside for some fresh air, where she encounters Blanc smoking a cigarette. He asks her to help with the investigation, as he trusts her “kind heart.” She agrees, and he tells her he will see her the next morning for detective work.

The next morning, Marta joins Blanc, Elliot, and Trooper Wagner in the forest of the Thrombey estate. They meet with the man who controls the security cameras. He has the tape with the footage of the night of Harlan’s party and death, and Marta notices that carved elephant, realizing the camera caught her when she pulled off before, not after, the carved elephant. She scrambles the tape through the old tape-player, and the use of magnets to erase the footage. Blanc notices muddy footprints coming up to the gate, but Marta steps through it, erasing that evidence as well. Blanc notices a broken piece of the trellis, something he notes as a “relatively fresh break” and sees there is a spot. He checks at the top of the trellis, the window sill of the disguise-window, and the carpet that there are traces of mud, all left by Marta, unbeknownst to Blanc. At this point, a sleek Beamer pulls up to the house, finally formally introducing us to Hugh Ransom Drysdale (played by Chris Evans))(preferring to be called Ransom by everyone, besides “the help,” who he forces to call him ‘Hugh’), adult son of Richard and Linda, and a sarcastic, douchey, self-righteous, spoiled brat of a man who has never had a job in his life, treats his massively expensive clothing and objects like trash, and doesn’t care about anything or anyone. He is known as the “black sheep of the family,” who had a special relationship with Harlan, in which they would stir up drama, and bicker and fight in front of the entire family. Nevertheless, Harlan still financially supported him. He barges into the house, and immediately causes a ruckus. He tells his family off, upsets them, and gets them all yelling at him, especially Walt, who has a particular disdain for him. Amidst the chaos, the family is informed that the night of Harlan’s party, when Ransom and Harlan were shouting in his office, Harlan told Ransom that he would not be receiving a “single red dime” of the inheritance. Harlan’s lawyer, Alan Stevens (played by Frank Oz) arrives shortly after and begins. He reads a statement first, addressing Linda, Walt, and Joni, stating that the exclusion was all for the best. Alan then reads the Will, which states that all of Harlan’s assets, ownership of Blood Like Wine, and his massive house and estate will all go to Marta Cabrera. Ransom walks out laughing, Marta is shocked by this, but the family is even more shocked by this. They yell at Marta, prying at her, seeing if there was anything going on between Harlan and her that may have caused this, they harass her about it. They are angrily flabbergasted. They eventually force her out of the house amidst the chaos, and Ransom pulls up in his Beamer to rescue her from the fray.

Ransom takes Marta to a restaurant, fills her up on baked beans and sausage, and interrogates her on the story, knowing she can’t lie or she’ll yak. Marta tells Ransom the whole story, the mixed vials, the sneaking, the suicide, everything. Ransom says “huh” and tells Marta that he always thought it meant something that he was the only one who could beat him at Go, and that Harlan told Ransom that Marta beat him more at Go than he did before he stormed out. Ransom tells Marta that she’s not gonna tell the family anything, and that she is going to get the inheritance and give him a share of it. Marta receives a call from Meg, in which she asks Marta to give up the inheritance to the family, and Marta says that she’ll take care of them. It is revealed that the family was watching Meg.

The next morning, Marta is confronted by Walt at her home, where he threatens to expose Marta’s mother as an undocumented immigrant to the police. Marta receives a blackmail note in the mail, containing the header of a toxicology report on Harlan and an address. She goes to Ransom for help, and they drive to the medical examiner’s office, in which they see that arson was committed, and everything inside the building, including Harlan’s blood sample, has been destroyed. Marta checks her email to see an anonymous message with a time to meet at the address from the blackmail note. She speeds off, catching the attention of Blanc, who was at the medical examiner’s office with Elliot and Trooper Wagner. Blanc then engages in a “high-speed” car chase with Marta and Ransom, in which he catches them very quickly. Ransom is brought in for questioning, after Blanc had talked to Greatnana about how she saw Ransom that night. Blanc rides with Marta to the station. Marta sees that time is running out, and takes a pit stop at the location on the blackmail note. She encounters her medical bag and Fran, who has been drugged and left growling the words “You did this, you won’t get away with this.” Marta, instead of leaving, tries CPR and calls 911 for help, as Fran is in critical condition. After taking her to the hospital, Blanc is informed over the phone that Ransom gave Marta up. On the drive back to the estate, Marta tells Blanc the entire story. Once at the estate, Marta discovers the full toxicology report where Fran hid her stash of weed. Before Marta can confess to the death of Harlan to the family, after reading the toxicology report, Blanc stops her, and tells the family that they have treated her like trash and rightfully lost the inheritance that Marta deserves. After this, he brings her into another room. Elliot questions his methods, Blanc says “indulge me,” and whispers something to Trooper Wagner. Wagner leaves the room, and begins to fully unravel the mystery.

Blanc signals for Trooper Wagner to bring Ransom into the room. Blanc then reveals he believes that Harlan had told Ransom that he was planning to leave all of his fortune to Marta than any of the family, and that Ransom later came back that night and switched the contents of the vials in Marta’s bag, and stole the Naloxon. This reveals that Marta did not, in fact, give Harlan the wrong medication of Morphine. She gave him the correct medication, because she is a good nurse and recognized the right viscosity of the liquids, therefore cannot be blamed for Harlan’s death. Ransom attempted to come back that night, but couldn’t, as the dogs barked at him. The next night, instead of headlines of a guilty nurse and an overdose, there were headlines of a suicide. In a rush, Ransom sent Blanc the envelope of cash. Ransom missed the funeral, to go back to the house, seemingly when nobody was there, switch back the liquid and return the Naloxon. However, Fran saw him, and, having a disdain for Ransom, sent him a note containing the header of the toxicology report, a date, a time, and a location. Upon realizing that Marta was innocent, he convinced her not to say anything and that he was going to help her. He then burned down the medical examiner’s office. Ransom then forwarded the blackmail note to Marta, and met with Fran, drugging her with a lethal dose of Morphine, burned the toxicology report, and sent Marta the anonymous email in an attempt to frame Marta for Fran’s murder. Marta then realizes that Fran didn’t say, “You did this,” she said, “Hugh did this,” because Ransom made Fran call him Hugh.

Ransom says this is absurd, reminding Blanc that he has Marta’s confession and should just arrest her, showing Marta and Blanc his true colors. Blanc then says that Fran will likely wake up and confirm all of this. Marta receives a call from the hospital, and informs the police that she’s fine and ready to take a statement. Ransom then confesses to the “attempted” murder of Fran, and has a talk with Marta, telling her that the charges basically mean nothing, as he has a good lawyer and will be out of jail in no time, and once out, with reak never-ending hell on Marta.

Marta then blows chunks on Ransom, showing that she was lying. Fran is dead, and Ransom just confessed to her murder. Ransom is enraged, grabs a knife from Harlan’s chair filled with knives, and tackles Marta to the ground with the knife plunged into her chest. Upon hitting the ground, he realizes the knife was a retractable stage prop, having done no harm to Marta, and is taken away by police. Before leaving, Blanc tells Marta she has a kind heart, and that is why she won. Linda finds a note from Harlan telling her that Richard is cheating on her. The family is cast out of the house, and the film ends with the family staring up at Marta as she stands on the balcony of what is now her house, drinking from Harlan’s old mug that reads “My House, My Rules, My Coffee!”

The suspense of this film derives from Marta as a character. You care for her greatly, she is truly a kind-spirited person who wouldn’t hurt a fly. The tension is brought by you “knowing” the ending by the end of the first act. You “know” that Marta “did it,” but you don’t want her to get caught. The audience knows that something else is going on, and that someone else must have done it, because you also want Blanc to succeed. It’s a constant cat and mouse game, but different from many other thrillers and whodunnits of this nature. Usually, it’s the detective trying to find the murderer amongst a group of odd characters. This time, it’s a kind-hearted nurse trying not to get caught by a genius detective. It’s a true expectation subversion from Rian Johnson, a writer infamous for his expectation subversions (having also written and directed “Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi” and “Looper”).

Speaking of our detective, Benoit Blanc is about as great as it can get. Benoit Blanc is inspired by many other famous detectives from whodunnit films and books, notably Hercule Poirot from Agatha Christie’s works. Blanc has a Southern accent, but not your common honky-tonk, redneck accent most actors would attempt. Daniel Craig has a molasses type voice, a drawl that seems true and honest, a brave move, especially for a British actor. The accent doesn’t seem faked, it seems lived in, like he’s been talking like that his whole life, and uses words that most people haven’t even heard of, saying things like “Sweet beans!,” “How’s the cheese?,” “You have a regurgative reaction to mistruthin’,” and “Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue.” Blanc is an interesting character, with his own ways of doing all things, who enjoys the theatricality of his line of work, and who loves Stephen Sondheim.

The level of detail in this film is unreal. Rian Johnson is one of the most detail oriented directors working today, up there with the likes of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Baby Driver) and Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer, Parasite). From the many trinkets all around Harlan’s house to the costume design, Johnson clearly had a say in every part of production, but his crowning achievement is his script, which received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Everything from the opening words comes back in some shape or form. Everything in this movie adds something later, even the smallest of details. In my massive recollection of the plot, I didn’t even mention half of the details, such as Linda’s secret way of communication with Harlan, how the family sees things differently from that night with Harlan, how they all say Marta is from different places in South America because they don’t care and only assume (Richard even says two different places). This movie is LAYERED with details and intricacies and it’s absolutely marvelous to watch unfold before your eyes. You never doubt anything you see for even a second, you believe all of it. “Knives Out” is an astonishing masterwork from Rian Johnson, and proves that you don’t always need superheroes and bombastic, CGI action scenes to grab the audiences’ attention. Sometimes you just need someone who can really write and direct the heck out of a movie.

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