Knives Out ★★★½

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

This review may contain spoilers.

Second viewing. Despite its raucous reception at TIFF, I wasn’t sure this was the slam-drunk crowdpleaser many assumed it would be once it made its way to theaters. (Even correcting for reach and access, that honor goes to Parasite, which film-agnostic normies have enthusiastically praised in my presence.) For one thing, the ways that Johnson engages with “the political climate” are bound to set many-a teeth on edge, especially when he employs the forced political phrases designed to appeal to the Internet crowd (“SJW degree,” “swatting Syrian refugees,” “alt-right troll,” “anchor baby,” etc.) One can also reasonably accuse him of needlessly underscoring a hyper-topical reading when it’s already implicit in the premise, i.e. a greatest-hits Trump debate amongst the Thrombeys feels like do-you-get-it overkill considering that the story engages with era-specific ideas about class and immigration. Beyond that, Knives Out sports a vague “Are we having fun yet?” vibe that I can see being potentially off-putting. At times, the whole thing feels like a victory lap before any game has been won. (I also can’t shake my bartender buddy’s dismissive description of the film from its God-awful trailers: “It looks like your generation’s Clue.”)

Or maybe the above is merely my attempt to unpack my arms-length appreciation of Knives Out, at least for two-thirds of its runtime. For a while, I was nodding along, generally appreciating the performances and Johnson’s sheer confidence without really being involved. It wasn’t until Evans casually cons de Armas into eating the baked beans and sausage that I really started to get into it, at which point I basically figured out most of the reveal—the who, the why, and most of the how. But it couldn’t matter less that the mystery is transparently solvable. It’s a unique pleasure to watch the various remaining pieces fall into place, not to mention hearing Craig put it together himself in a swing-for-the-fences Foghorn Leghorn drawl, a reference that’s appropriately and inevitably called out by the script.

A friend of mine at TIFF wondered if the fact that Marta essentially embodies a model minority undercuts the film's strength, that her purity renders her an anonymous symbol rather than a fully-fledged character. I certainly can see her point, but not only does every character in Knives Out serve a narrative/archetypal function, Marta always Doing The Right Thing also has emotional weight because it plays into both the film’s genre aspects and its political takeaway. Knives Out follows a set of rules, mainly that everything presented on screen must be true (even if certain clarifying details are withheld), but another important one is that Marta is a true innocent with a moral center so strong that she pukes every time she lies. Even once she has everything to gain by acting immorally out of self-preservation, she makes the right choice over the easy one at basically every turn. For Knives Out to “work,” Marta can’t be corrupted.

But, frankly, that’s moving in its own right, outside of narrative demands. Marta’s casual selflessness dovetails neatly with the Thrombey’s myopic liberalism: they praise her dedication and bootstraps work ethic when it’s convenient but cast her as an ungrateful meddler when it isn’t, but she remains the same. I genuinely didn’t expect for Knives Out to elicit an emotional reaction from me, but the moment in Craig’s drawing-room monologue when he confirms that Marta didn’t screw up the meds out of reflexive instinct and skill, because she’s “a good nurse,” put a lump in my throat on two different viewings. Ditto when she refuses to bail on a dying Fran. Somewhere between Johnson’s script, de Armas’ stellar performance, and the staging of the reveal, a genuine affection for the character crystallizes, borne out of a belief that being a good person still means something in a time when “getting away with it” has become a suitable modus operandi. It’s why the closing montage has charge, and the balcony/driveway blocking overcomes its heavy-handedness, and that final shot—an unabashed payoff to a perfectly forgettable plant—puts a stupid grin on my face.