Knives Out, or: A Donut Missing Its Hole

I don’t know what to make of Knives Out. Writer/director Rian Johnson has made a movie that in every way resembles classic one-mansion murder mysteries, with one exception: He left out the mystery. There is, to be sure, a lot of detail to unpack with regards the nature of the nefariousness on hand, but the murder itself, if murder it is, is given away about a quarter of the way in. On top of that, there’s not a bit of the expected guessing game of who did it. One expects the arrow of guilt to point in one obvious direction only to be whirled around again and again as the movie builds to its unexpected conclusion. But in Knives Out, the arrow only ever points at one suspect, who is, in fact, guilty. Guilty, in any case, of being a dirtbag.

As it happens, all of Johnson’s character are dirtbags. Which appears to be the point of the movie more than any supposed mystery. There are two good(ish) people: The deceased, Harlan Thrombey, an old, wealthy author of whodunnits, and his young nurse, Marta, from an unspecified South American country (a running gag; her rich white employers name a different country every time they mention her noble heritage).

Johnson wants within his whodunnit to paint a topical picture of the evils of wealth and the plight of kind-hearted South Americans who just want to earn an honest buck. He makes this clear enough, but, perhaps, does so at the expense of crafting a satisfying mystery.

The suspects

To be sure, there’s an investigation, led by southern drawler Benoit Blanc, played with a charming oddness by Daniel Craig, and many an unknown to uncover, yet most of the time Blanc is simply catching up with what we and Marta already know.

What do we already know? We know a whole bunch of SPOILERS, so reader beware. For anyone who happens to stumble over here having not seen the movie, curious as to its quality, my short take is: A reasonably entertaining, well-acted diversion that neverthless grows unnecessarily cluttered by the end, leaving one wondering what all the mystery was supposed to be about.

On to the spoilers.

The detective

So, a third or so of the way in, we’re privy to Marta’s recollection of the night in question, when her employer was found dead on his study, his throat cut in an apparent suicide, following a big family party.

And what we see is Marta, medicating Thrombey via syringe, accidentally switching vials, and fatally dosing him with morphine. He’ll be dead in ten minutes, she says in growing panic. Thrombey, being old and retired and done with life anyway, and not wanting his beloved nurse to be accused of wrongdoing, cuts his own throat.

The apparent suicide, then, is an actual suicide. More or less. Which at that point I was thinking, wait, what? Is that it? We know he did it to himself? No one cut his throat for him? What, then, is the mystery? Is Marta painting herself as an innocent in her own memories, when in fact she meant to overdose him? Well, perhaps. Perhaps we’re seeing how she acted—the innocent—when in reality it was all a devilish scheme. But no. She’s too obviously good. It doesn’t track with anything else. Which leaves only one sinister possibility: The vials of medicine are not what they seem. She didn’t inject him with morphine. Something, somehow, got switched.

Marta lurks

And indeed, that is the mystery: The who, how, and why of the medicine switch. There’s a fair bit of investigating from Blanc, but for the most part the clues he uncovers are those pointing to Marta’s actions the night of the murder. Any drama lies only in whether or not Marta will be exposed. For innocently messing up medications. Which isn’t quite as exciting as one might wish.

A testament, then, to Johnson and his actors for keeping the movie afloat. From Christopher Plummer to Jamie Lee Curtis to Michael Shannon to Don Johnson to Lakeith Stanfield to M. Emmet Walsh, whom I admit I forgot was still among the living, the performances are what saves Knives Out from its own cleverness. I haven’t much cared for any of Johnson’s prior films, so despite my reservations about Knives Out, it’s at least more watchable than anything else he’s done.

But still. Approaching the end, the movie flags. No red herrings are suggested. Arrows of guilt are pointed neither hither nor thither. One is left merely to ask oneself, I wonder who did it? The obvious choice is Thrombey’s grandson, Hugh (Captain Am—er, Chris Evans). He left the party early, he’s pissed off at everyone, he had a mysterious argument with grandad the content of which is conspicuously withheld. He’s the kind of jerk that in a normal mystery you’d suspect right off, only to have the rug pulled out from under you later on.

Director Johnson chats with the evil and not so evil-doers

But in Knives Out, there is no rug to be pulled. Hugh did it. That is, he tried to do it by switching medicine vial labels. Only then Marta herself accidentally switches vials, and yadda yadda yadda, there’s a lot of intricate yet pointless details to work out, the end result being what we knew all along.

It feels like Johnson got so caught up in complicating the medicine switch and all its attendent business (which business has to do with Hugh’s knowledge that Marta is to inherit everything, thus necessitating, for legal reasons of inheritance, the appearance that she is, however innocently, to blame for Thrombey’s death) that he forgot the purpose of such complications: To point the arrow of guilt at one suspect after another, and to surprise us when the killer is at last revealed. Instead we’re given a long-winded explanation of exactly how things went wrong for Hugh, despite grandad winding up dead anyway. In the end, Marta inherits everything just as Thrombey planned and the rich asshole family is left standing in the driveway, penniless. So, just deserts, I guess?

Thematically that’s all well and good, with the rich white folk conniving and scheming to keep the kind-hearted immigrant poor and helpless, but mystery-wise it elicits nothing but a Hm. Johnson gets lost in his complex scheme of legalities and switched vials and bloodwork and forgets to keep us guessing.

4 responses on “Knives Out, or: A Donut Missing Its Hole

  1. I do not have much to say in support of this film but I did find it diverting enough. Its a nice beach novel. Or a pop song. Just fine to kill some time even if its intent is more mysterious than the film.

    I thought it was better than Logan Lucky. And at least there wasn’t a lot of superhero bullshit.

    And Brick is great.

  2. After sleeping on it, given the ending, I’m wondering why Thrombey didn’t just take the syringe and pretend he OD’d himself after Marta left? That’s certainly more plausible than suicide by dagger, especially if he left a note.

    I had spent the film assuming that the manufactured drama was all manufactured by Thrombey himself, as a test to see if Marta really was better than him/Cap’n America at Go? And that he’d hired Benoit himself to put the screws on. And if Marta could figure it all out, she’d win the inheritance because she deserved it.

    But that wasn’t it. Thrombey wasn’t that smart is all. And neither was Marta — she was just nice. So… good gals win? Sort of a weird coda for a whodunnit.

    • Sort of a weird whodunnit. But at least kinda amusing. A sequel is coming soon. Maybe it’ll be more mysterious.

      And just about anything is better than Logan Lucky.

    • Great point! Or why didn’t she just take him to the hospital instead of wait for the paramedics. And how did Chris Evans character know about an antidote?? The average person wouldn’t know that and he seemed pretty dumb. The grandads “Marta escape plan“ took about 10 minutes to figure out He didn’t feel any symptoms??

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