SPOILER Review: A subverted plot from director Rian Johnson that is pretty good for what it is, just not what it was sold to be.
Long Story Short: Again, last chance, SPOILERS: Midway we realize the whodunit we thought we were here for is more of an indictment on class warfare. Not unlike Johnson’s last directorial outing, there are parts of the film where it feels like whole situations would never have happened if characters just listened to each other. The cast is having a grand old time but are so underutilized that it feels like, without the red herring “mystery”, we could’ve had a really great character study. I came for Clue and Murder By Death and I got Thanksgiving dinner for rich people with a side of death.
The movie centers around the Thrombey family who have gathered for Patriarch Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) 85th birthday. He’s found in the morning with a slit throat by the housekeeper and police seem to think it’s a suicide. Lieutenant Elliot (LaKeith Stanfield) questions the family along with private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with a ridiculous but infectious southern drawl) who was hired by an unknown client that question’s if the elder Thrombey would take his own life. Here, in the first act is where the movie shines. We are introduced to his eldest daughter Linda Drysdale (Jaime Lee Curtis) a self-made entrepreneur, her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their spoiled brat son Ransom (Chris Evans). We then meet Harlan’s son Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) who runs the family publishing house, his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and son Jacob (Jaeden Martell of It fame who has little to do but is referenced in one of the funniest lines of the movie.) Finally, we’re introduced to his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette, our generation’s Meryl Streep) and her daughter Meg (Kathryn Langford). During the investigation, we learn each one of the family members has a motive for murder, that is, until we meet the nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).
Nurse Marta, with the rather quirky tick of being unable to lie without vomiting, is questioned by Benoit as the last person to see Harlan alive. While giving simple answers it is revealed in flashback that she accidentally gave him an overdose of morphine while administering his medication. Because of her kindhearted and truthful nature, Harlan had grown fond of her, even over his whole family who he feels he’s failed. In the few minutes he has left before succumbing, he devises a plan for Marta to escape suspicion which she could explain away without lying, all against her protests to get help, then slits his own throat. From here, the whole whodunit aspect marketed by the movie goes out the window. We learn all the motivations of the other children which at this point are moot. It turns out that most of them are just horrible people who are even worse to Marta with some members outright racist.
By the second act, as Marta is no longer considered a suspect and is even recruited by Benoit as his assistant, it is discovered at the will reading that everything is left to Marta and the real ugliness of the family begins. There’s some wheel spinning regarding a toxicology report that would implicate Marta as she teams up with Ransom to destroy it and keep the inheritance of which he wants a part.
In the final act we find out Ransom, who was told first about his grandfather’s intentions with the inheritance, purposely switched the medication in the vials Marta was to administer and was the mysterious client that hired Benoit to find her out. Benoit, armed with the negative toxicology report deduces that Marta never administered the wrong medication (something to do with the viscosity of the liquid and her having a good heart) and that it was Ransom who was responsible. Marta gets to keep the fortune and the family is made to look up to her as she sips her tea on a balcony.
Subversion and Expectations
An aside: the only other Rian Johnson movie I’ve seen is Star Wars: The Last Jedi and generally I really liked it, at least more so than the previous Force Awakens, with a few caveats. I’ve never been a fan of movies that create conflict that could’ve easily been solved by having the characters just listen to each other. In TLJ, [SPOILERS for a two-year-old movie, I guess] the whole diversion to Canto Bight, (the casino city) was due to Poe Dameron’s inability to follow Admiral Holdo’s orders. Before this turns into an argument over feminism hear me out: in the military, disobeying a direct order from a commanding officer is insubordinate, regardless of gender. If Poe had followed orders, none of the events leading up to the deaths of Holdo and other resistant fighters would have happened. If this was all done in the service of subversion it ultimately felt pointless.
Similarly, we are taken on another subverted path in Knives Out. After Marta realizes her mistake of grabbing the wrong vial, she tells Harlan he only has about ten minutes before overdosing but begs him to let her call the police which he thinks won’t get to him in time. I understand why he makes the choice of killing himself (to protect her and the inheritance) but if he had trusted her and listened, none of the subsequent events would have happened. It’s fine to subvert expectations, but when the whole movie, even its marketing, is a red herring, it feels like cheap storytelling.
I remember walking into the early screening thinking the mystery genre doesn’t get enough love. The most recent offering, Murder On The Orient Express was, fine. It similarly felt a little pointless but at least there was a mystery to solve. In Knives Out, there is no mystery. We know whodunit. The movie then dives into the family, their politics and why we should be rooting for Marta regardless of her culpability. de Armas is great and she truly is endearing. As an old school mystery lover, I would have preferred in the final shot, as she looks down on the family from her newly inherited balcony, if a devious grin or knowing look across her face that suggested perhaps there was more to her than we thought. Instead, she’s an absolute saint. As a Latina, it makes me happy to see Marta elevated above the role of “the help,” (there’s a running gag where the family never get her country of origin right), but regardless I was promised a mystery and was left with rich people behaving badly.
The most criminal aspect of the movie is just how wonderfully clever the cast and dialogue is. There are some real laugh-out-loud moments. I think my favorite line of the movie (and perhaps of the year) is “Joylessly masturbating to headless deer” referencing alt-right troll Jacob who overhears Ransom and Harlan argue while in the bathroom. The beginning almost reminds me of the opening of Suicide Squad, where it starts out fun and full of promise and then squanders that goodwill. We get really cool introductions to the characters but because the focus is on Marta, we get less of the family as the movie progresses. It’s a shame. Not only do we lose the mystery, we lose learning anything else about these characters. The house, too is underutilized as a character. It’s not an accident Clue gets referenced, as there are hidden windows and rooms, but it never gets too deep into its heart.
The consensus from most reviewers is the movie is clever because it subverts expectations. I felt its weaker because of it. I purposely refer to red herrings here because that’s what the whole thing felt like. In Clue, which was a failure in its theatrical release but has grown to cult status, makes use of the plot device while not betraying the mystery. Knives Out introduces several red herrings (Harlan tells Marta about cutting off members of his family because she told him too, suggesting there was more to her than it seemed as well as his note to Linda about her husband’s cheating.) None are explored. They truly are red herrings, but they don’t divert from anything. A little less time subverting expectations and more time crafting a true mystery could have produced a great whodunit for this generation. Instead, we got what most of us probably experienced this Thanksgiving: political banter with the family, and hopefully what none of us experienced, a side of death.