Spoilers galore are ahead from the recently released ‘Knives Out.’
I recently took the family out to the movies to see Knives Out, the new film directed by Rian Johnson that’s being marketed to audiences as a “whodunnit” mystery-suspense caper. The trailers definitely give you the impression that the story is in the style of Agatha Christie or Clue, sort of cutting it down the middle between the two stylistically in that the comedy is much less broad than it is in Clue.
Come to find out, a whodunnit is not exactly what it is. It starts out that way, to be sure, but even before the story is half way through, the audience is supplied with a major piece of the puzzle, and at that point it becomes much more of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller than a mystery–though there’s still some mystery remaining to be solved, to be sure, as anti-climactic as it is.
Johnson’s first two indy features, the high school noir Brick and the time-travel potboiler Looper, while not flawless, are highly enjoyable and entertaining films worth watching. Disney took notice and tapped him to direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A lot of critics have referred to Johnson “subverting expectations” with Knives Out, and putting a new twist on a genre that’s been a bit of a chestnut over the years should be welcomed. And if there’s anyone who should succeed in doing that, it should be the director of Brick and Looper.
However, and call me old fashioned if you like, I’m of the opinion that the plot should make some sense. It should at least be somewhat believable in order for what the director intends to be the “twist”–the intended subversion of the expected, if you will–to be truly satisfying for an audience, rather than, say, an act of cinematic masturbation for the director’s own personal pleasure. The latter is much more the case with Knives Out than the former. And the reason is simply politics.
That’s right: Politics.
Politics is the reason that Knives Out‘s plot stretches credulity to the point where you feel as though Rian Johnson is literally urinating all over your brain. I had a similar sensation when I saw Carrie Fischer flying through space in Last Jedi. Only with Knives Out, it felt as though the urine stream hit my brain even harder, and it never stopped for the entire two hours.
This is where the spoilers come in, so if you’re thinking that you still might want to head over to your nearest cineplex and make up your own mind, now would be the time for you to check out of my little critique. I don’t think I’d be spoiling much for you, however, if you stuck around. Most of what I’m about to divulge you’d probably see coming from a mile away anyways.
But if you leave now determined to go pay full ticket price at your local cineplex, you should know that it’s the film’s star-studded cast that makes it as enjoyable as it is. In my opinion, it’s definitely a streaming-on-a-rainy-Sunday-afternoon kind of flick. Your life wouldn’t exactly suffer for the lack of enrichment in the meantime.
The catalyzing incident of our story is the sudden death of the very successful, very rich, and very old best-selling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer. It appears to be a suicide, and by a very grisly method at that. The morning after a lavish party at his house celebrating his 85th birthday, he’s found in an out-of-the-way room in his massive, labyrinthine gothic mansion, with his throat cut, the bloodied dagger he allegedly used on himself lying nearby.
The local police detectives have made up their minds that it’s an open-and-shut suicide, end of story. But a mysterious private investigator, Benoit Blanc–played by Daniel Craig with a southern drawl that’s not quite as jarring as you’d think it would be–shows up to question the suspects. He eventually reveals that someone has anonymously hired him to look into the case, having left him an envelope stuffed with a thick wad of cash. Thus, it seems, someone suspects foul play.
The suspects consist of Harlan Thrombey’s thoroughly cruddy family: his widowed daughter-in-law (Toni Collette), who Harlan has discovered pilfering money from him under the guise of paying for his granddaughter’s college tuition; his son-in-law (Don Johnson), whose extramarital affair is found out by Harlan, and which Harlan threatens to expose to his daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis); Harlan’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), who, much to Walt’s dismay, Harlan cuts out of his independent publishing house due to Walt’s incessant badgering that Harlan allow film and TV adaptations of Harlan’s work; and Harlan’s wayward grandson, Ransom (yes, he’s actually named Ransom, played by Chris Evans), who storms out of Harlan’s study in a huff during the party, following a loud and heated verbal altercation.
So–whodunnit? If it really was a homicide, that is, rather than the suicide it appears to be.
As I’ve mentioned above, Johnson tips off the audience fairly early as to what actually happened to Thrombey–or at least most of it: by way of a flashback, we are informed that his nurse, Marta (a dull, thankless role expertly brought to life by Ana de Armas), accidentally overdosed Harlan with morphine when she mistook a vial of the stuff for the regular medication that she usually follows up with a low-dose morphine chaser. She realizes her deadly error when she examines the labels on the vials after administering both medications. And the antidote for the morphine is missing from her nurse’s kit.
And what’s Harlan’s initial reaction? Is it, “What the f**k did you just do to me?” Why no. The film has established that Harlan and Marta have a close, grandfatherly/granddaughterly kind of relationship, so naturally, even Marta’s fatal error doesn’t stir up any anger towards her. Once he realizes that he’ll be dead from the OD by the time paramedics reach his secluded big house out in the country, Harlan decides to spend his last several minutes on this Earth–as his life is supposedly ebbing from his body with each passing moment–concocting an alibi for Marta so that nobody discovers that she accidentally caused his death. Because if anyone discovers that Marta was responsible for Harlan Thrombey’s death, her mother, an undocumented immigrant, would most certainly end up deported, as would Marta and the rest of her family, most likely.
Once Harlan concocts a scheme for Marta to secretly flee the scene of the crime undetected and he sends her on her way with his careful instructions, the old man then proceeds to slice his own throat with the dagger.
“Subverting expectations?” Sure. The immigration politics of the film, integrated into the script in such a clumsy and hamfisted fashion, completely subvert the audience’s expectation of a plot that fits into some sort of logic recognized by other human beings who are not so politically obsessed as Rian Johnson.
But wait, it gets better.
It turns out that Marta didn’t actually kill Harlan after all! Not even on accident. The real culprit, the grandson–the improbably named Ransom (Evans)–in an effort to kill his grandfather and frame Marta for it, swapped the vials of morphine and the other medication with the hope that Marta would end up overdosing Harlan with the morphine. Harlan, you see, has stipulated in his will that his entire estate be left to Marta, leaving nothing at all for his cruddy family. But Marta is such an expert nurse that she reflexively gave Harlan the correct medication after all, and the usual low, safe dosage of morphine, just based on the look of the medicine that was stored in each vial.
I wonder if the following scene will be included in the extended director’s cut:
HARLAN (after having just explained his plan to Marta that will help her sneak out of the house and evade detection, looking a little puzzled): By the way, are you sure you just accidentally gave me a 100mg overdose of morphine?
MARTA (teary and upset): I just happened to look at the labels after I injected you…so yes, I’m quite sure. Again, I’m so sorry!
HARLAN: And you said I have only 8-10 minutes to live?
MARTA: That’s right.
HARLAN: You told me that about, what, 3 or 4 minutes ago, would you say?
MARTA: Yes, I think that’s about right.
HARLAN: So I only have about, what, 5-6 minutes left to live…?
MARTA: Yes! Oh, I’m so sorry!
HARLAN: You know, it’s funny, but…I don’t feel anything yet. No dopiness or wooziness. Nothing at all. Shouldn’t I be feeling some symptoms of the overdose by now…?
(But Marta, overcome with emotion and desperation, has already fled. Harlan shrugs his shoulders, picks up a dagger, lies down on the divan, and slices his own throat.)
The actual murder that occurs in our story, as it turns out, is that of Fran, Harlan’s housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Fran knew of Ransom’s deception with the medication–or rather, attempted deception–and she was trying to give Marta a toxicology report from the medical examiner that showed there was no morphine overdose after all. By this point in the film, Ransom has been befriending Marta and misleading her into thinking that he’s an ally ever since the reading of Harlan’s will. Ransom, it turned out, killed Fran by overdosing her with morphine (or some other such drug).
And it’s Marta who coaxes a confession from Ransom by telling him, following a phone call she takes in Ransom’s presence, from a doctor where Fran is hospitalized, that Fran has actually survived. As soon as Ransom admits to having attacked Fran, Marta lets rip a stream of vomit. I forgot to mention–it’s established early in the film that Marta literally cannot tell a lie without becoming physically ill to the point of throwing up. The lie in this instance was that the phone call she took from the hospital was to inform her that Fran had actually died rather than survived.
It turns out that it was Ransom who secretly hired Blanc to look into the case, apparently with the hope that Blanc would conclude that Marta was responsible for Harlan’s death. There’s no indication that any of the other characters in the film ever suspect Marta, much less Blanc. And it’s clear throughout that the audience isn’t ever expected to, either.
If a director wants to present a political angle in his film, there’s nothing wrong with that. But at least strive for some artistic finesse, please. A second generation daughter of illegal immigrants who cannot tell a lie without becoming violently ill does not make for very believable storytelling, not because we’re supposed to assume that such a person must be dishonest, but because the character approaches a saintliness that matches no real live human being.
And Marta is a dull and boring character. The camera loves Ana de Armas, and her eyes convey multitudes. She is interesting to watch, with absolutely no thanks from Rian Johnson’s lifeless writing, and she rescues her role from terminal lameness.
There are some clever nods to the current political zeitgeist throughout the film. Walt’s teenaged son, who gives the impression of being constantly on Twitter harassing liberals and minorities from his smartphone, is referred to by another character as an “alt-right troll.” “What are you doing on Twitter today, swatting Syrian refugees?” Toni Colette asks him in one scene. And a scene during Harlan’s birthday party in which members of the family square off against each other over Trump and immigration is probably the most believable scene in the entire film.
But the sledgehammer dialogue at the end–good grief. Ransom’s “how-dare-you?” speech in which he rails at Marta for invading his family’s “ancestral home”–did Johnson lift that right off of an alt-right web site?
Don’t piss on my brain and tell me I’m being enlightened.