“Knives Out weaves in some effective commentary on immigration.”
Title: Knives Out (2019)
Director: Rian Johnson 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Rian Johnson 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Murder mystery Knives Out had my number the moment writer-director Rian Johnson put pen to paper: I’m a diehard fan of the genre. I grew up on the kitschy Clue VCR game that came out in 1985, spending hours watching (and rewatching) the hour-long movie and solving the game’s various plots. And in our spare time, my childhood friend and I began writing and organizing mystery parties in middle school, when I still had to bribe my older sister to cater the party, well into adulthood when alcohol sufficed as the main course. In short: A modern whodunit set in a gorgeous Victorian home? Count me in.
The resulting action-packed blend of comedy and thriller breathes life into a genre that has hibernated for too long, with only stale remakes like Murder on the Orient Express (2017) available to drag viewers through the drought. Thus, an air of exuberance suffused the Princess of Wales Theatre at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where the film saw its world premiere. In a feat of cinematic communion, audience members leaned forward in their seats for the shared privilege of finding out: Who did it? Who killed Harlan Thrombey?
The very same attribute that gives Knives Out life, however, does bubble over the top like an excitable stew. Numerous twists and turns swing toward narrative vertigo somewhere around the 90-minute mark, where I felt my interest begin to wane. Luckily, Johnson saves the most gravity-dropping surprises for the end, resulting in a package of sheer entertainment from start to finish—if not throughout, exactly.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) serves as the film’s moral center and plays the straight woman to a heinous(ly ridiculous) cast of characters. The young caretaker finds herself targeted by disparate members of the Thrombey family as each vulture seeks to scrabble back wealth after the death of their patriarch, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).
Among such storied talent and big performances by A-listers such as Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, or Daniel Craig, the young de Armas holds her own without having to compete. Impressively, she stands out through the very meekness of her character, with the contrast providing a wonderful balance to the otherwise star-stuffed cast.
Speaking of balance, Knives Out boasts seven women to eight men among the film’s suspects and detectives, with women exhibiting equal depth and importance to the plot as men. Among the many relationships that web out from the epicenter of the freshly killed Harlan, a myriad occur between women who are presented as more than just girlfriends or wives of men. (I know, hardly revolutionary. But Lord knows Hollywood has set the bar low.) For example, Marta’s urge to take care of her mother and sister drive her motivations; her friendship with Meg Thrombey (Katherine Langford) constitutes one of the rarer examples of genuineness among the pit of circling sharks; and Meg pairs up with her mother Joni (Toni Collette) as the conservative family’s social pariahs, due in part to their liberal political leanings.
The only reason I couldn’t give this category a full score arrives twofold, through an absence of women behind the lens and the film’s DNA as a crowd pleaser.
Among Johnson as writer-director, the five listed producers on IMDB are all men. Music; cinematography; art direction; and production design leads: Also all men. In fact, the only notable roles offscreen held by women include casting by Mary Vernieu and costume design by Jenny Eagan.
And while Knives Out perfectly suits the kind of large, holiday gatherings that will congregate come its Thanksgiving release date, this also means that deeper examinations of gender fall to the wayside. This hardly hampers a film from living its best life. But from an inclusion standpoint, general movies like Knives Out that leave the harder-hitting questions for more daring films will have to stand a step behind in recognition for inclusiveness.
While comedic in tone, Knives Out weaves in some effective commentary on immigration through the backstory of Marta, whose mother is undocumented (and played by Marlene Forte, a Cuban American actor who boasts a dizzying number of TV and film credits to her name.)
Through the installation of a Latin family as its emotional heartbeat, Knives Out immediately challenges the genre’s long history of conflating Victorian-inspired mysteries with Anglo-Saxon whiteness. I’m not saying murder mysteries don’t have an illustrious history in British culture—they do. But must TV shows and films made in the modern era stay confined within one, staid sandbox?
Johnson gives a resounding “Nope!” Better yet, rather than banging audiences over the head with a heart-wrenching tale of persecution, Johnson dovetails immigrant characters with the deftness to which the United States integrates its own immigrant population—a demographic that makes up about 1 in 7 American residents, whether you know it or not. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from presenting the simple fact that undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable to exploitation. The status of Marta’s mother looms over our heroine’s head as leverage that could be used against her at any moment in this melee for power.
Given such serious material, the manner in which Johnson critiques broader America miraculously manages to stay lighthearted. He inserts a running gag of various Thrombeys fawning over how Marta is “like family” while mistaking her country of origin in the same breath. Paraguay? Brazil? Guatemala? Nobody really knows—or cares! They’re content to use her foreignness as a way to make themselves look more empathetic. (For the record, we do care, and de Amas is Cuban-Spanish. Intentional or not, I appreciate that the actors behind Marta and her mother sync up, both of them born in Cuba. And the fact of listening to de Amas speak with her true accent feels affirming, not unlike hearing Mexican actress Martha Higareda in Netflix’s Altered Carbon or Michelle Yeoh’s Malaysian accent in any of her English language movies.)
Beyond this immigrant-friendly core, however, it’s obvious from its marketing that Knives Out remains almost entirely white. Lakeith Stanfield, as the vastly underutilized Lieutenant Elliott, plays a far second-fiddle to Daniel Craig’s turn as the drawling and amusingly fallible investigator, Benoit Blanc. The disparity feels so overt, in fact, that Lt. Elliott sticks out as the lone party on one side of the paper bag test, with literally every other character on the other side. He’s the Black city slicker, parachuting into a white community and must learn its strange and insular ways (see: Hulu’s Castle Rock with André Holland, or HBO’s True Detective with Mahershala Ali). No matter how progressive Johnson’s underlying themes may be, this visible colorism will always feel a little retrograde.
In its defense, the whiteness of the Thrombeys feels accurate to reality. Wealth and privilege remain inextricable from whiteness in America, thanks to a violent history of colonialism and systemic oppression. I don’t expect Knives Out to dismantle that, on top of what it’s already doing to humanize immigrants. At the very least, Johnson’s easygoing jabs at ultra-rich trust funders, and his slightly more pointed takedowns of neo-Nazi teen Jacob Thrombey (Jaeden Martell), will suffice in allowing me a small cackle or two.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.33/5
Start your engines and stamp the gas pedal—Knives Out will take you for a ride. Complete with high production values and a nosebleed-inducing list of celebrities, all taking the piss and enjoying the hell out of their campy roles, this blockbuster will likely endear itself to a wide audience come November. Best of all, none of Knives Out will make you feel gross. It’s family friendly and never denigrates women or people of color for even a split second. What more could we want for the holiday season?