Much like the slow-death of the Rom-Com genre, murder-mystery films have also disappeared from the cultural zeitgeist of cinema and primarily existed as one-off genre films that come and go between the decades. Knives Out is a true murder-mystery film looking to revisit all of the quirks that made this genre what it is today.
By writer-director Rian Johnson, Knives Out follows the story of a wealthy family in conflict; all scrambling to gain their “rightful” inheritance after the suspicious death of the head of the house. The narrative structure of Knives Out treats all of its characters more or less equal; there’s no real lead character in this film, but rather, a handful of key characters.
This densely detailed murder mystery is presented through the lens of a contemporary detective drama – similar to the breed of murder mystery novels or TV shows that you’d enjoy on a rainy Sunday – such as the British Television series Midsommar Murders. More than that, it feels reminiscent of the classic mansion murder-mystery films that became popularized as early as the 1940’s. Despite this classic style, director Rian Johnson implants many caveats to his film to produce something that has its own autonomy and sense of identity – he has made certain that this film is wholly and truly all him.
Knives Out is supplemented by an interview-style non-linear structure – much like you’d see in the mockumentary genre – this modern twist supports Rian Johnson’s vision in forming a more modern take on murder-mystery films. Johnson’s confidence in expressing his style and broadcasting his message is nothing short of inspiring – especially when one considers the immense pressure this talented writer-director has endured over the past 2 years. Johnson has channeled the criticisms he has received from the overwhelming monsoon that is the internet and in a sense constructed a film that both ignores and responds to the negativity that exists on the web. This film tackles prejudice and even taps into the often unaddressed idea of white privilege among the wealthy – targeting private school “trust fund kiddies” that wear blazers and even deconstructing the concept of the “perfect American man” by including a self-absorbed character played by Chris Evans (most prominently known as Captain America within the Marvel films – an embodiment of American ideals).
On a narrative level we as the viewer are thrown deep within story with little to no context – this film essentially releases the floodgates of tension before reaching its climax and it does so intentionally. Many may view this film as a “subversion of the genre” but what Knives Out does so brilliantly is to do its core elements correctly; simply, there’s setup, buildup, and payoff. These core elements are what make any film a good watch.
What may stand as this film’s greatest strength is its superb dialogue – with intricate topical statements, to thematics worthy of praise – Johnson is like a master Jedi with words. You see the concepts of privilege, greed, and honesty come up – much like this year’s film Parasite (2019). All of these themes are supported by the stellar cast – primarily, Anna De Amas and the outstanding performance by Daniel Craig.
Knives Out is smarter than it is stylish, each technical feat still operates at a high level except doesn’t hold the spotlight. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin manages to guide the camera through tight spaces, capture scope and navigate through its large ensemble cast seamlessly. Carefully selecting the right angle to use and opting to use different styles such as a handheld cam when a character is in distress. Yedlin has a keen eye on lighting in a way that deepens the film’s atmosphere and establishes tone.
Production Designer David Crank creates a detailed house full of the rich history of the Thrombey family but unfortunately isn’t utilised in a way that I had hoped. The mansion doesn’t play a role in the film at all – where it could have been used to build up mystery. The score is composed by Nathan Johnson who employs an entire orchestra to create a sharp score that blends nicely by supporting the tone in the film. It is clear there is a strong collaborative effort with Rian Johnson as it assists the script and evolves with the film as the film takes shape and unfolds.
Rian Johnson may not be deconstructing the genre into something entirely new – but he has constructed a masterful piece of work – funny, gripping, and writhe with clever dialogue to leave you in awe. It goes to show, without interference, truly outstanding pieces of work can be produced. As cleverly cut together as it is narratively sharp – Knives Out proves that director Rian Johnson hasn’t just honed his craft, he’s polished it to near perfection.