Knives Out (2019)
PG-13 for language and, um...murder? It gets a little graphic at times, but not in a way that could be consider exploitative. I suppose that some political ideologies are questioned. It just so happens that a lot of it aligns with my own personal politics, which makes me feel like it isn't that bad. But for all I know, people might be fuming about the commentary in this movie. Whatever. I think there's an f-bomb in here somewhere. I remember pointing it out for a PG-13 movie, but I'm also deliriously tired so I could have dreamt the whole thing.
DIRECTOR: Rian Johnson
I'm kicking my own butt now. I loved writing every day. There's a meme hanging in my classroom of the soda fountain being poured with two buttons depressed simultaneously. Now that I've taken all of the fun out of it with that description, I have to add that, in Impact font, it says "Writers feeling stressed not having written" and "Writers feeling stressed writing". I think it might work better as a visual thing, but I've decided that I like the stress that comes with writing more than the stress that comes with not writing. Like Frozen II, I watched this one a while ago. I was actually semi-sorta pleased with how Frozen II came out, despite the fact that I had seen it so long ago. Let's hope that Knives Out does the same thing and, also, that I learn my lesson about procrastinating about writing.
I AM GOING BACK INTO STRESSING THAT THIS WHOLE THING IS ONE GIANT SPOILER. Murder mysteries suck when they are spoiled. While I stopped doing spoiler alerts because it is part of the conceit of the whole blog, this one might make people a little mad if they haven't seen the movie yet.
Rian Johnson might just be a great alternative mystery director. I've come around on The Last Jedi. It's still a very imperfect movie for me, but I'm no longer really obsessed with Star Wars. (All that being said, I just asked my wife if we could go see it on Friday.) It's hard to distance the fact that Rian Johnson has since made one of the biggest movies of the decade, but I can't stop thinking of him as the guy who made Brick. For those people who haven't seen Brick, it takes many of the elements of the film noir detective mystery and grafts those elements onto a contemporary high school setting. In terms of lighting and color, Brick looks like a contemporary film. But the language and the narrative are plucked right out of an R-rated Maltese Falcon. It's a little pretentious to be claiming that Brick changed your life, but I find myself recommending that movie more than I ever thought I would. Mind you, I also recommend it to people and they come back claiming that they absolutely hated it. But Johnson shows a passion for this genre / subgenre that I didn't really get out of his other outings. I liked Looper and I now kinda sorta dig Last Jedi, but it really feels like Rian Johnson might be a nerd for the murder mystery with a skew.
I say that his murder mystery has a little bit of a turn because that's what the genre really needs. I'm forbidden about writing publicly regarding a movie that is coming out soon, but I noticed that certain genres really need to defy conventions to draw attention to themselves anymore. Traditional murder mysteries, which I suppose are now labeled "suspense" or "thrillers", are very fun but often forgettable. But movies like Sleuth tend to be disappearing from cinemas. The gimmick from Knives Out is that, by all of its trappings, it claims to be one of these murder mysteries from yesteryear. But watching the movie, the structure of the film is very off-kilter. Murder mysteries present elements that we see in Knives Out. We have a very public murder where many suspects have the opportunity and motive to commit the crime. We have unreliable narrators and characters who all have an alibi to why they couldn't have done it. We have a detective who is far more clever than any other character in the story. I'll even go as far as to say that aesthetically, the movie looks like an old-timey murder mystery. There were times early in the film where I thought that this movie might actually be a remake of Sleuth itself, with the large house and the victim being a famous mystery writer.
Rian Johnson's change of format is what breaks the convention, only to ultimately repair the convention. It's a little unfair of me to say that Knives Out is all about subverting genre because mystery narratives somehow are supposed to subvert expectations. The reason that an audience cares about a murder mystery is because, secretly, they don't want to be able to solve it themselves. The thrill lies in whispering to a spouse about theories and motives, only to be shown up by an ending that is even better and more teased than anything you could have seen plainly. The way that Johnson achieves this misdirect is by giving the audience the answer fairly early in the film. Johnson's big red herring is that he successfully makes the audience question what genre of film the audience is watching. Everyone paid to come see a murder mystery. Explaining that Marta accidentally killed Harlan in the first quarter of the film shifts perspective. For the first few minutes after the Marta reveal, I was guarded and was ready to think that there had to be another element to the murder. There had to be some change. But the movie actively embraces the Marta fake out for so long that I honestly thought that the big twist was that this wasn't a murder mystery, but a story about fleeing from justice. Even when the movie started teasing me about clues and hints, I thought the mystery came down to cleaning up loose threads. From a meta perspective, the mystery almost becomes something meta.
Knives Out may have a leg up over Brick. Both Knives Out and Brick have a playful quality and a separate meta quality to them. Knives Out's meta quality lies in the fact that the movie, at times, makes you forget that you are watching a murder mystery. Brick's meta aspect is the fact that it is playing with the tropes of film noir. But the audience from Brick makes it a less playful film than Knives Out. While I adore the concept of Brick, what makes me happy in the movie is that I'm part of some exclusive club. The language is intensely dense and it took me a few rewatches of the movie to really understand the concepts within the film. It's been a few years since I watched it and I don't know when I will see it again because my Blu-ray has been in the mail for about six months. But I don't know if I ever understood every element of the film. The language and the way that it is shot is almost intentionally withholding. Knives Out, however, is built for a wide audience. There's nothing independent about the film in the least. It has star power. It's funny and clever. But the movie also never really dumbs itself down for the audience. It places expectations on its audience while providing entertainment for everybody. While I felt like I was chatting up the mental elite with Brick above the hoi polloi, Knives Out felt like a communal experience. These movies are definitely cousins, but one is way less stuck up than the other.
I do want to watch Knives Out again. I always think of comedies and mysteries as magic tricks. The more you watch them, the less impressed you are because the unexpected is now expected. But Knives Out, like a good mystery, also adds the value of complexity to itself. A second watch will add something for me. I want to see the detail work now that I know the solution. How much was Johnson teasing me with the answer? That's worth watching. Also, it's a fun movie. I like watching fun movies.
12/16/2019 03:52:20 pm
Trish and I both enjoyed Knives Out and were fooled by the ending. I am a big fan of Brick, which Pat got me as a gift some years ago and your comparison to The Maltese Falcon is spot on. Keep up the good work Tim!
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.