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"Knives Out" – When The Pen Isn't Mightier Than The Sword

Rian Johnson’s "Knives Out" starts with a bang – two dogs rapturously run at the camera in slow motion as we’re propelled into the Thrombey household, an organised pandemonium of colours, old books and weird dolls resembling more a decrepit antiques store than a home. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is the octogenarian man of the house, at the head of a complex genealogical tree of A-listers, including daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), son Walt (Michael Shannon), and grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan is also lying in his bedroom upstairs with his throat slit. Whilst Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) humorously attempts to solve this apparent suicide, Harlan’s huge family grapple for his inheritance as the screws of domesticity come loose. A common trope intensified by Harlan’s especially close relationship to his Spanish carer Marta (Ana De Armas), "Knives Out" – though held together by an interesting structure and an underlying social critique – is in fact a mess of clichés. While aesthetically and musically excellent at the beginning, it cannot help but lose its panache gradually, taking the form of a cheap Agatha Christie miniseries no one watches, and resuming its splendour only in the final scenes.

Credit: AlloCiné

Fundamentally, "Knives Out" is a game and a fairy-tale, a part of illusory stories. A cricket ball is repetitively played with, while Harlan measures the difference between a real knife and a fake knife, alluding of course to the chair in his living room where a plethora of knives points at the head of whoever dares take a seat. Marta’s inability to lie without vomiting alludes of course to Pinocchio, a secluded little boy who just wants to be real and normal like everyone else. The Thrombey home is a Cluedo board where the guilty members of the family tiptoe, hiding in its nooks and crannies and awaiting prey. Crucially, however, the spectator is invited to adopt the role of detective as each family member is interrogated and presented as a case file. In addition to this, an odd relationship develops between character and viewer as we are abruptly told in a series of flashbacks what exactly happened on the night Harlan was killed – does this undermine the status of the film as a whodunit or reinforce it, allowing us to possess and control the film, smirking at Craig’s absurd hypotheses (and ridiculous accent) as we thrive in our omnipotent power? Certainly, it makes the film less fun. For although a small part of the mystery remains to be pieced together, does it really matter anymore? “I won’t spoil it for you,” one of the detectives, a massive fan of Harlan’s mystery novels, excitedly says to Blanc. It’s an odd mise en abyme, as though the director has admitted already that the film is ruined for us.

But perhaps there is another reason for watching "Knives Out", besides the excitement of the whodunit that we expected. It is no coincidence that Marta, the Spanish carer, is at the heart of the film as the head of an upper class family dies: she is the only character who knows as much as the viewer, and also the centre of ignorant discrimination. Various references are made to immigration throughout, be it a fleeting comment or a whole plot point: Marta’s mother is an undocumented immigrant, while the members of the family constantly and condescendingly get her home country wrong, calling her the Brazilian nurse, or assuring her she is from Uruguay as though she is not capable of telling them herself. While this has immense comedic effect, it points to something much more sinister as the plot unfolds and the focus of the family becomes Harlan’s possessions: the house, the publishing company, and the money, underlined by the patriotic “my house, my rules, my coffee” mug Harlan owns.

While Marta is very much “a part of the family” at the beginning of the film, she is quickly excluded and segregated when her being a part of Harlan’s will becomes a possibility. Unfortunately for Johnson however, the clever social and political critique lurking in the grimy corners of the family’s conscience cannot be saved by a clichéd plot, where tropes are overused and red herrings are thrown about to no dramatic effect. In many ways thus, the film is a combination of interesting symbols and allegories denouncing discriminatory and racist behaviour and a cheap detective story that never quite comes full circle. The underlying symbol of the story, however, remains the idea of fake: fake knives, fake letters and fake people all blend together, creating a film that in the end, takes on a fake quality itself.

"Knives Out", despite its weak twists and underwhelming reveal, is a game of wits, of illusion, of smoke and mirrors, where everyone ultimately is stabbed in the back.

Read what Rian Johnson had to say about his latest film as Strand caught up with him at LFF here

Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film Editor and Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor

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