When I sat down to watch Knives Out, I hadn’t been spoiled to its surprises – save for the fact that Daniel Craig would survive to lead a sequel, obviously – so the mystery remained just that for me. A mystery waiting to be solved right alongside the audience. Granted, the film began to make me question my top suspect about halfway through the film, only to bring the movie full circle in a hilarious, almost riotous manner that I could not stop laughing at. The attention to detail laid out by Rian Johnson was clear from the outset – it was always there, but you had to be willing to put the pieces together in order for it to make sense by the time it was spelled out for you. Appearances can be deceiving, but just as often they are exactly what they appear to be.
In the vein of Agatha Christie, there are main characters and then there is the protagonist, the latter became evident with the impending sequel, Glass Onion – Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, a bumbling detective who still manages to uncover the truth in hilarious fashion. The film shows that Blanc is a keen observer (spotting clues that the audience is informed of at a later time), and yet just as well he is blessed with immense luck – a character tosses a critical piece of evidence that a dog then happily brings back – to laughably inept at the best of times, and always for comedic effect. As the protagonist, he will invariably be the character who provides a throughline from film to film, investigating whatever seemingly unsolvable crime is ahead of that film’s plot.
Knives Out centers on the Thrombey family, when mystery novelist patriarch Harlan Thrombey (played by the late, great Christopher Plummer), has died by suicide in the night – something that Blanc, and several others, question, as the manner of death is a slit throat. Yet, all of the evidence makes it clear, that Harlan killed himself – leaving behind the traditional issues that come from wealth transition in the wake of an unexpected death. The interview portion of the film introduces the major players in the Thrombey family via a brief Rashomon-style device. Harlan’s three children are Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), and Walt (Michael Shannon) with his eldest son Neil already dead by the time of the film. The other key players of this family include Linda’s husband, Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), Richard and Linda’s son Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale (Chris Evans), Neil’s widow Joni (Toni Collette), her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), and son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), and finally Harlan’s mother Great Nana (K Callan). Then there is the help – Fran, the housekeeper (played by Edi Patterson), and Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) who is Harlan’s caretaker. The only other characters who have any kind of import are Detective Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Sagan) – both there because jurisdiction proves tricky, but also to play off of Blanc.
It truly is an ensemble to be envied, such that the sequel took it up a massive notch – but we’re not here to talk about Glass Onion. Yet. The actors are playing characters that seem completely opposite to their typical fare – though if anybody is familiar with Chris Evans before his turn as Captain America, the snarky, hot, douche is not too far from his take on the Human Torch or Jake Wyler. Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette shine in their roles, with the former being the only one to keep her cool throughout her interactions with Blanc until the shocking reveal near the end of the movie and Toni offering a whimsical daughter-in-law who is definitely not skimming off of her daughter’s college fund. Jacob, whom most of his family peg as a Nazi from nearly his first line of dialogue, is constantly snarking with his cousin Meg on the liberal wing of the massively wealthy clan.
Somebody hired Benoit Blanc to investigate the death of Harlan, despite literally every piece of collected evidence pointing towards suicide. Slowly, over the course of the first half of the film, the pieces fall into place to tell us how the presented suspect supposedly got away with it, all the while working to stay ahead of Blanc. It is then that the second half begins to deconstruct everything we think we’ve seen, every detail we believe we know, and every shocking fact that we’re certain has been set in stone. Rian Johnson certainly has a flair for the dramatic, a penchant for comedic timing, and a frenetic eye for his characters. All of this plays well together that, at a certain point, I truly was doubting my suspicions even as my enjoyment of the movie ratcheted up with every passing minute.
Murder mysteries are a special kind of mystery tale – especially when everybody has a motive to kill the victim. Throughout Knives Out, suspects are doled out and quickly dismissed, but with everybody so well cloistered in the house, anybody really could have done it even if every new detail seems to exclude somebody. That’s why, when the film finally rolls around to the will reading, wherein the only person who had no motive to kill Harlan suddenly has the most potent motive in the world, the film really starts to have fun with its characters and their motives. Are the Thrombey’s really as well-behaved as they initially presented themselves in the first half of their interview with the police or are they who they showed themselves to be in the second half of their interviews? This distinction regarding appearances, and whether or not they are to be believed, is a central theme in Knives Out. Who are we as people? Are the pieces we show the world of our own accord or the pieces that are lulled out in moments of weakness, desperation, anger, or despair?
Each character shows a volley of emotional selves throughout the film, marking them as whole people, or more importantly as well-rounded characters. Why they do what they do is always in question – is it about money, privilege, or arrogance? Or is there something deeper at play with their motivations?
When it comes down to it, Knives Out is not afraid to take a dive into the world of the rich and powerful, and how they interact in the world. It also isn’t afraid to play on the other side of the tracks, and how those around the wealthy can take advantage of them – or seem to, in the case of a certain character. Appearances, again, are at the center of this story, and Rian Johnson took great care to weave that theme through each character and their arc – from those who are more than they appear to those who are exactly as they are.