The Unclosed Circle: Why Knives Out is my favorite movie of all time

Alright. Knives Out surpassed Speed Racer as my favorite movie of all time a while back, so it’s past time I wrote a long, serious review of it. Spoilers throughout.

Setting the Stage

“But let me assure you this, my presence will be ornamental. You will find me a respectful, quiet, passive observer of the truth.”

The first time I saw this was not under the most ideal of circumstances. It was honestly one of the most stressful and traumatic days I’ve ever had. My finacx and I were both coming down from adrenaline and needed something to do to take our minds off of it. Ve was actually the one who suggested a movie, but I readily agreed. When my parents were getting blackout drunk on weekends, going to the movie theater was what I did as a combination of a reason to get out of the house and a way to take my mind off of things. That’s how I first saw Speed Racer,  actually. So it was a pretty familiar way to self-soothe.

Again, it was actually my fiancx who suggested Knives Out. I had never heard of it, but as a The Last Jedi stan I was well up for a Rian Johnson-directed mystery movie.

I had no idea what I was in for.

One of my favorite YouTubers tells a story in one of her Patreon videos about a particularly emotional day she had when she worked at Disneyland. She had recently decided to try to transfer to a different department but hadn’t told any of her coworkers yet. That night, they were having a cast member appreciation night, and they got to see the updated sequel trilogy version of Star Tours. The way she described it was that she was already so emotional from the day in the park with her coworkers whom she would be moving on from soon, that when BB-8 appeared on the screen she “imprinted on him like a baby bird,” and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe that kind of experience with media before and I relate to it so intensely. I think that’s basically exactly what happened with me and Knives Out (and me and Her Story, and me and Speed Racer, and probably me and a lot of other things?).

I would have loved this movie no matter when I saw it. It’s perfect. But I think seeing the perfect movie at the perfect time, and the unexpectedness of it all (I hadn’t even heard of it before my fiancx mentioned it) just really added to me falling for it so quickly and so completely.

The second time I saw this movie, it looked disturbingly possible that Donald Trump was about to be elected for a second term and we made the conscious effort to get really high and not follow the news at all that night. So what better to take our minds off of that than the movie that had already lifted our spirits on a day when we had thought that likely an impossible task? The only concern I had was that we would come through classical conditioning to unduly associate this movie with periods of high stress.

Luckily, I needn’t have worried.I have watched Knives Out 14 times since it came out in September of 2019. I watched it on New Year’s to make sure it was technically both the last movie I watched in 2020 and the first movie I watched in 2021. I once watched it with my girlfriend on a Zoom call, then when I told my fiancx I had done so ve half-seriously suggested we watch it that night and I was genuinely up for it, but we didn’t end up doing it that night. (I think we did a few nights later, though.) Every time I watch it I notice something new.

This was the first movie we watched after my orchi, literally so I could write a joke review about how I would give both my nuts to watch it with my fiancx and my boyfriend who had just moved in with us. I fell asleep while we were watching it, woke up right as Ransom delivered his melodramatic “FATHER” to say it with him, and then fell right back asleep.

I will literally never not be in the mood to watch Knives Out.

A Murder Mystery by Rian Johnson

”Close the book with a flourish.”

I promise this is the last section of the review where I’m going to mention Johnson’s immediately preceding work, but it’s something that just has to be dealt with. The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie and it isn’t particularly close. There is a confidence to its storytelling and an emotional sincerity to it that has never been seen in a Star Wars movie before or since. And on top of that it’s the first and last time that a Star Wars movie’s visuals have been genuinely striking. I was severely disappointed when J.J. Abrams, not Johnson, was announced as Trevorrow’s replacement for Episode IX.

I’ve had something of a falling out with the Star Wars franchise. You see, I grew up as probably one of the most devoted Star Wars fans there were. And not just the movies. I had a voracious appetite for all the expanded universe novels, video games, comic books, and all the “nonfiction”-style secondary materials that filled in details about the universe as a whole. I wrote FANFICTION about it. I was not in any way a casual fan. But in the last few years any enthusiasm I once had for the franchise has basically evaporated.

The inciting incident for this evaporation was the hiring of multiple TERFs who were TERFy in extremely newsworthy ways to star on The Mandalorian. Looking back on it, though, I think part of why I never fell back in love with the franchise is that The Last Jedi is not only the best Star Wars movie, it will likely forever be the pinnacle of what Star Wars can be. The fan backlash to it was so severe that they course corrected in dramatic fashion, and they’re just going to be playing it safe for the rest of eternity.

But this isn’t about Star Wars. I kind of don’t care even a little about Star Wars anymore? All of this is really to say… Rian Johnson was handed the reins of one of the most popular franchises of all time, knocked it out of the park in a way that was so stunning and so different from what had come before that no one knew what to do with it and decided they just hated it … and that wasn’t even his masterpiece, it was a fucking warm up.

But it could have prepared me for what Knives Out was going to be if I had been as plugged into the film industry as I used to be. Because the movie is just brimming with many of the same things that makes The Last Jedi so godsdamned great, but on top of that the setting, the characters, and the overarching plot are all things that Johnson got to build from the ground up, something that was truly his. Now where have I heard that before?

It might be a huge shame that we’re not going to see how great the Star Wars franchise could’ve been if it continued with direction Johnson took it in The Last Jedi, but we’re going to get Knives Out sequels and while I understand why I was so bitterly disappointed that we’re not getting the former, at this point I’d definitely rather have the latter.

The House at 2 Deerborn Dr

“I mean, the guy practically lives in a Clue board.”

It’s rather cliché to say that a setting has so much personality it might as well be another character in the movie, but I mean… what else do you even say about Harlan’s mansion?

The place is just stuffed with mystery books and things that look like they could be from a mystery book. Hell, we canonically learn through dialogue (mostly from the overly-enthusiastic Trooper Wagner) that many of the items in and around the mansion are replicas of items from Harlan’s own books.

A lot of the action of the movie takes place in a library that inexplicably has a throne decorated with hundreds of knives? Harlan’s study has a trick window near it (from one of his books!) and creaky stairs leading up to it. Basically every room looks like someone could be found dramatically murdered in it.

The setting adds so much to the story. And it’s not even just the house? Setting this in New England during the fall leads to such a cozy vibe, and really matches the kind of mystery this is so, so well. And everyone gets to wear just the most incredible sweaters. Honestly, I’m not sure there was a bad choice made in this entire movie.

The Victim Who Was Not a Victim

“It’s all for the best. My mind’s made up.”

For someone who starts the movie as a dead body, Harlan Thrombey sure gets to shine a whole lot.

Harlan is a man who cares deeply about the people around him. His oft-echoed belief that he “built something from the ground up” and desire to see his children do the same and succeed via capitalist mythmaking is my only real problem with him. But we see also the depths of his compassion for people like Ransom (whose attempt on Harlan’s life is already sitting in Marta’s medical bag), and the incredible lengths he’s willing to go to do what he thinks is right.

The man literally gives his life for Marta. He’s wrong to do so, and does it over her protestations. He would still be alive if he hadn’t. But there is certainly no questioning his conviction, or the fact that he has a good heart.

You can tell he’s used to being the smartest guy in whatever room he’s in, and though he references some hard-earned lessons in humility, his cause of death is his unwillingness to put his life in the hands of someone else because he’s too busy trying to save hers at the expense of his. As he earlier remarks to Marta about his son-in-law, he’s pulling on loose threads of his parachute.

He’s a flawed man, but one certainly worthy of the same compassion he so clearly had for those around him.

The Suspects Who Were Not Suspects

“Excuse me! You have not been good to her. You have all treated her like shit! To steal back a fortune that you lost, and she deserves! You’re a pack of vultures at the feast; knives out, beaks bloody! Well, you’re not gettin’ bailed out. Not this time.”

None of Harlan’s family killed him, but man, it would’ve been way simpler if one of them had. They are just… the WORST.

There are two running jokes early on in the film that are particularly revealing. One is that nearly every family member tells Marta they think she should have been at the funeral but “I was outvoted,” which raises the question of who exactly participated in this vote. The other is that every single character confidently identifies her family as being from a different South American country.

The most sympathetic of Harlan’s children is probably Linda. She seems to have had the warmest relationship with Harlan and is the most genuinely upset by his death. She also had less to gain than anyone else in the family, given that she’s the only member of the family who has stable employment that isn’t pulled out from under her by Harlan’s will.

Yet despite not being threatened in any meaningful way by Harlan’s altered will, Linda largely spearheads the ensuing bullying campaign against Marta. A viciousness born out of wounded entitlement is revealed. I would have appreciated some more context from Harlan’s point of view of his relationship with Linda, which again appears to have been the least troubled of his various familial relations, but her reaction in and of itself certainly seems to justify her exclusion.

Her husband Richard, on the other hand, had ample motive. Harlan confronts him with evidence of his infidelity and demands that he come clean with Linda before he tells her himself. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg with this asshole. We find out in one of the other flashbacks that Richard is a Donald Trump supporter. He ends up patronizingly inviting Marta over to the table to “hear what she has to say” without ever actually giving her a chance to talk, and then carelessly hands her his plate like it’s her job to clean up after him. (That last one was apparently an ad lib by Don Johnson. It adds so much to the scene, I’m really glad he added it.)

Then there’s Linda and Richard’s son Ransom, who we’ll come back to presently in another section.

As far as other siblings go you have Walter, whose motive is that his dad was going to fire him from running the publishing company (and doing fuck all, basically), his wife Donna who is barely in the movie (all we really know about her is that she’s high strung and extra racist, like even more racist than Richard), and their son Jacob who is literally a Nazi internet troll. His father either doesn’t understand or approves (“Kids today with the internet, it’s amazing.”)

Harlan’s other son apparently passed away quite a while before the movie, but his widow Joni and daughter Meg are still very much in the family picture. Joni runs a very unsuccessful skincare company (“it’s skincare, but it promotes a total lifestyle”) and is an Instagram influencer. Her motive is that Harlan was about to cut her off after financially supporting her for years. There’s a funny little gag where Joni tells Blanc “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you,” whereas Linda says, “I read your profile in the New Yorker, I found it delightful,” kinda demonstrating the contrast between the two. (Linda also sounds severely pissed off when she says it, which is pretty dang funny to hear someone saying “I found it delightful” with barely-constrained anger.)

Meg is the quintessential white feminist. She makes a huge show of being angry at the cops for asking if Marta is with “the help,” constantly stands up for her in very showy ways that cost her nothing, repeatedly offers her weed from Fran’s stash despite her obvious lack of interest (and then smokes it herself)… and then turns on Marta the second she’s subjected to the slightest bit of pressure.

It would’ve been underwhelming, but until the first major plot twist it would’ve been pretty easy to envision literally any of them as the murderer. And as a group, they are somehow even worse.

The only family member who seems more or less beyond reproach is Harlan’s mother, and the rest of the family is completely dismissive of her. It’s actually a fairly major plot point that Blanc is the only one who pays her any mind.

The Red Herring Who Was Not a Red Herring

”She didn’t say ‘you did this,’ she wasn’t talking about me, she said ‘Hugh did this.’ Cause you made the help call you Hugh. Cause you’re an asshole!”

Ransom is the perfect villain for this movie. The way he dramatically arrives on the scene like halfway through the movie and basically tells everyone to fuck off really shakes things up, and at first he honestly comes off as kinda awesome considering the people he’s telling off are his rich asshole family members. Yes, he’s also a rich asshole from that family, but at first he seems different. And he is. He’s somehow even worse.

Of all the family whose motives are basically identical to his, he’s the one who’s actually willing to metaphorically pull the trigger. And when he realizes it didn’t go down the way he wanted it to, he sloppily tries to manipulate people and events to engineer the outcome he wants. And he does it all with a careless swagger, confident that he’s smarter and better than everyone else and that that’s all he needs.

He severely needs to be punched in his perfect little face, but Marta throwing up on him will have to do.

The Supporting Players

”Not legally, no. You not liking what he did does not speak to testamentary capacity.”

(Okay, cards on the table: there were probably way better quotes to use here, I just really like Frank Oz’s read of this line a whole lot.)

The supporting characters we spend the most time with by far are the cops. In the audio commentary Rian Johnson describes them as “okay cops,” citing the fact that they probably haven’t killed any innocent people today. They’re “okay cops,” he reiterates, somewhat sardonically. I appreciate his justified cynicism about cops, it makes it easier to enjoy these ones as characters.

Both cops are their own kind of comedic relief. Trooper Wagner, as previously mentioned, is an overly enthusiastic fanboy of Harlan Thrombey’s books and also fanboys over Blanc’s detective work at times despite, you know, being an active part of the investigation.

Lieutenant Elliot is more or less the lead investigator between the two cops, but he’s willing to defer to Blanc for the most part. His form of comedy is just being Done with a capital D. He has lines like, “Again, more weak sauce. You’re just dumpin’ that vat of weak sauce on me,” and “That was the dumbest car chase of all time.”

One of the subtly hilarious moments of the film is when Linda Thrombey is screaming at everyone to get out of their house (which is about to be revealed to be Marta’s house) and both times she says it Trooper Wagner obediently moves to leave and Lieutenant Elliot just calmly stops him by placing a hand on his arm.

Rounding out the relatively small cast are also the security guard who proudly refers to video cameras and VHS tapes as “modern technology,” Fran the weed-smoking and sharp-tongued housekeeper, and Marta’s mother and sister.

I’ve grouped this last cluster of characters because we spend barely any time with each of them but they all feel like fully-formed characters and leave such a strong impression. The acting and character writing in this film is incredible, and all of the comedy beats (of which there are many) are mined from believable and relatable character interactions. Everything conspires to give this film such a feeling of vitality.

In the same category as these characters, but getting their own paragraph because of blatant favoritism, are the Thrombeys’ lawyer and his assistant. They’re in the movie for probably less than five minutes, but they nevertheless leave an enormous impression.

The Detective Who Did Not Dig

“It describes the path of a projectile determined by natural law. Et voila, my method. I observe the facts without biases of the head or heart. I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus and the truth falls at my feet.”

If there’s one character whose personality dominates the movie, it’s Benoit Blanc, “the last of the gentlemen sleuths.” His investigation method sets the tone and rhythm of the movie. The intercut interviews with the various family members early on gives us so much information at once, and are so revealing of everyone’s personalities, and they all come to the same head–Blanc figuring out what they’re trying to hide. He’s basically the movie’s onscreen director.

I have no idea if Blanc is a self-insert character for Johnson, but he clearly had a lot of fun writing him. But maybe not as much fun as Daniel Craig appears to have had playing him? It’s such a delight seeing him chew all of the scenery, using his overt charm to knock things loose.

The camera also loves him. He’s introduced as a shadowy, mysterious figure sitting by the piano (which he uses as a signal to the detectives to direct their questions in the direction he wants), there’s the dramatic zoom transition (with accompanying musical cue) from the Thrombeys’ meeting with their lawyer over to him, and there’s the similar zoom on “Enter… Benoit Blanc.”

He also is just constantly churning out some of the best lines of dialogue you’ll ever hear in a movie. Like nearly everything else about the movie, Blanc is hilarious while also being incredibly sincere and effective. Also like everything else about this movie, he has personality to spare and then some.

The Sidekick Who Was Not a Sidekick

“You’re not much of a detective, are you?”
“Well, to be fair, you make a pretty lousy murderer.”

Benoit Blanc may be the movie’s onscreen “director,” but the movie is not about him. In this sense the movie is unquestionably Marta’s. His “Watson,” who spends most of the runtime convinced that she is the murderer he is looking for.

Marta is the movie’s heart. Upon first laying eyes on her, Blanc sees the blood on her shoes but immediately deduces that she is no murderer. He asks her pointedly, “Does having a kind heart make you a good nurse?” He recruits her to be his sidekick, his “Watson,” not just to uncover the truth about the murder, but to uncover the larger truth about everything surrounding it. He knows she’s lying to him–the girl who literally cannot lie is lying to him by omission–but he also knows she is nevertheless the most honest person involved with the affair.

The entire movie, and entire solution to the murder, turns on Marta being a good person. Yes, she goes along with Harlan’s plan. She undertakes basically any benign action she can to interfere with the investigation–telling the version of the truth Harlan rehearsed with her, erasing the video tape that would incriminate her, pretending not to hear Blanc when he warns her not to walk in the mud and muddle the footprints. All of these have one thing in common: they protect her while hurting absolutely no one. On the other hand, literally every time she truly has to choose between her safety and someone else’s, she puts herself in harm’s way to do the right thing.

The Murder That Was Not a Murder

“You knew because there is the slightest, almost imperceptible difference of tincture and viscosity between the liquids. You knew because you had done it a hundred times. You gave him the correct medication. Because you are a good nurse.”

One of my favorite tropes about murder mysteries has always been that big, grandiose scene where the detective explains who did it and how. Where everything falls into place, every nagging detail suddenly makes sense, every question is answered with a dramatic, triumphant flourish. And this movie has quite possibly my favorite example of this trope that I’ve ever seen.

It has this in spite of the fact that instead of the detective confronting the entire group of suspects (though he does tell them off immediately beforehand), the principle players are only the detective Blanc, his sidekick (and principal suspect) Marta, and the truly guilty party Ransom, with the two cops on hand as a Greek Chorus.

It pulls together every single detail of the movie, it uses direct flashbacks effectively with voiceover narration and cuts back to the actual scene that’s transpiring. Not only that, the central thrust of the scene isn’t just the detective triumphantly explaining how he figured it out, it is backed by genuine emotion.

You do sometimes get hamfisted emotion in these kinds of scenes where the detective engages in some over the top moralizing, but what you get instead in this is that heartbreaking moment when Blanc explains that Marta had never given Harlan the wrong medication in the first place. And she hadn’t because she is just… amazing. But it’s heartbreaking because Harlan committed suicide for nothing.

It’s also a guided tour of the entire rest of the movie, the moment where everything comes together both intellectually and emotionally in a moment of profound catharsis. And if you’ve read my Speed Racer review (https://letterboxd.com/tailsmoon/film/speed-racer/1/), you know I live for that shit.

The Unclosed Circle

“I want you to remember something that’s very important. You won, not by playing the game Harlan’s way, but yours. You’re a good person.”

It was never about the murder mystery. I mean, it is. But the most important character in this movie is not Blanc, but Marta. And to drive that point home, the closing shot of the movie mirrors the opening shot, with Blanc having gracefully exited, and with Harlan’s “my house, my rules, my coffee” mug now in Marta’s hand.

So let me honor the movie by also circling back to the beginning, and say that that first night I saw it, Benoit Blanc’s parting words to Marta (quoted at the beginning of this section) were so unbelievably important to me. After going through that traumatic day, after watching this unexpectedly incredible movie, I was in the state of perfect vulnerability to hear exactly that.

Blanc finds Marta in this incredibly vulnerable state at the end of a physically and emotionally exhausting journey, and that’s the same state the movie found me in. He looks at her, and he sees her innermost self, who she really is… and he approves.

In my case it was only an illusion that the movie was doing the same thing, I mean, it wasn’t made for me specifically… but in that moment it felt like it was.

And I really needed that.

I love this movie. I love it for so many reasons much more mundane than this, but also for this.

But yeah, in case I haven’t made the case well enough in the preceding sections, it’s also just a pretty damn amazing movie on its own merits.

***

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