REVIEW: Knives Out Is a Satirical Whodunit Against the Death of the Author

The opening shot of the black comedy Knives Out is a moving postcard from Murder Mystery Land: a Victorian brick manor looming over a wet, late-autumn garden, with a leaden sky and two German shepherds galloping toward the screen, too far away to judge if they are aggressive or friendly. The second shot is a close-up of a coffee mug that reads: "My coffee, my house, my rules," which could double as writer/director Rian Johnson's declaration of intent.

Fans of Johnson (Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) will feel right at home at Thrombey Estate, the seat of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a successful mystery writer, and his bickering, freeloading descendants -- some of them in denial about Harlan's influence on their good fortune, others acutely aware of their unearned privilege but lacking the motivation to change. What unites them is Harlan's unexpected death on the night of his 85th birthday, initially ruled a suicide, but which someone considered suspicious enough to bring in famed detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig in full Southern ham mode).

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Blanc fulfills and subverts every detective trope, from Sherlock Holmes' weaponization of music to destabilize his opponents to Hercules Poirot's charming accent to Columbo's apparent obtuseness ("It's a doughnut hole inside a doughnut hole!"). But in a movie about a deceased mystery writer, it's fitting the detective who makes an explicit appearance on a screen-within-the screen is Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote.

It's difficult to talk more about the plot of Knives Out, because the first genre-bending twist pops up 15 minutes into the movie. But let's just say the entire film is a masterclass of planting and pay-off of the most refined, Chekhovian quality, which will please both those viewers who like to guess ahead and those who prefer to be surprised. The lighthearted, satirical tone belies a tightly woven script and structure as intricate as any of the tapestries hanging on the walls of Thrombey Estate.

There's also cutting commentary, with the Thrombeys as a parody of the wealthy, white American family: From "self-made" industry moguls to intellectual gatekeepers, from galivanting playboys to MAGA trolls and from prim-and-proper WASPs to liberated self-styled influencers, they feel like they are occupying their natural place in the world. It's only when the rug is pulled out from under their feet that this ingrained belief starts to shake, and they (hilariously) lash out.

Knives Out can be seen as a witty essay about the social, economical and political anxieties of white Americans and their arsenal of answers to any perceived threat to the status quo, ranging from loophole abuse to outright blackmail.

On the other hand, Knives Out is also a reflection about audience response to the renewal of a seemingly untouchable property and the raging indignation that erupts against authors who attempt a different approach. Specifically, Knives Out could be viewed as a subtle clapback from Johnson to the negative reaction from Real Star Wars Fans TM  to The Last Jedi. Although the references to it are vague enough to go over the heads of audiences unfamiliar with the intricacies of the franchise, Frank Oz's cameo might confirm that layer of interpretation.

Finally, and ironically in a movie that is about the literal death of an author, Knives Out is firmly against the "Death of the Author" school of criticism. Harlan saw the faults of his descendants as clearly as if they were characters in one of his novels, and what he lived through and wanted in life matters a lot even after he's gone; the way the living play the game matters even more.

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Benoit Blanc, the other stand-in for Johnson's authorial view, is not shy in voicing his opinions. And in case there were any lingering doubts about Johnson's thought process, he outright said he loosely based the Thrombeys on his own family, and he was quite aware he's part of the same slice of the population he lampoons (he owes his current position to his family's ability to finance his first film, Brick),

Knives Out's brilliant cinematography and the larger-than-life performances of the all-star cast make it stunning in theaters, but it will be an immensely rewatchable film at home, yielding new details with every viewing.

Written, produced and directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out stars Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Ana de Armas, and Jamie Lee Curtis, Jaeden Martell, Katherine Langford, Frank Oz, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, and Riki Lindhome. It is scheduled to be released on Nov. 27.

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