Whodunnits require a careful balance of subtle foreshadowing along with a strong motivation for the story to continue — since the whole point of it is to have a twist in the tale. To blatantly state that there'll be a twist later on will kill the actual surprise when it is revealed, but not hinting at it also means there's no narrative thrust, and the film becomes a sequence of events (as opposed to a story). Knives Out errs on the side of the latter, unlike most other mystery movies, but this presents another set of narrative issues which end up hurting the movie.
The film follows the investigation of a group of detectives, after the death of a wealthy old man. While his death seems to be straightforward open-and-shut case, events seem to hint that there's more than meets the eye. They soon discover that everyone in his family had a motive to kill the rich geriatric — but the question is, who did it?
The core premise of Knives Out is that it's a whodunnit, as the marketing materials repeatedly tell you. And it certainly plays out that way in Act One of the film... until it loses steam in that direction. The plot then continues limping on painfully for the rest of the movie, before living up to its premise as a whodunnit. While it sounds like a great idea on paper, it's terrible in execution. After the first Act, you lose all motivation to continue watching but the movie meanders on and on and on. The story has been wrapped up, the characters are grating, and shouldn't everyone just go home now? But wait — there's still over an hour to go. That means the story hasn't truly ended, even though it seems like it has, telegraphing in the most artificial way possible that it just gave you a red herring.
Before long, it reveals that a convoluted series of events and machinations and other shenanigans resulted in a completely different outcome (not that completely different, but the film tries to assure you as such) and the movie mercifully ends. But even a minute of thought will reveal the sheer unbelievability of such a plan. For the antagonist's plan to work, not only do events have to occur exactly as predicted, a huge amount of luck also has to be involved. You're left in incredulity as you wonder how exactly the villain managed to get everyone to do exactly what was needed at the exact time.
It strains belief and unnecessarily bloats the run time. Knives Out probably had a wonderful script, and reading it might have created the intended sense of thrill and suspense. But as a moving picture, it doesn't hold your attention or have enough gravitas to run for such a long time. The script is undeniably clever, but the execution isn't. For it to have worked as a movie, the script needed to have been written with the visuals in mind (talking heads and interviews do not a good movie make) along with more obvious cues. But the film was too love in with its own script to make the necessary changes for a film medium.
That being said, the props and sets were wonderful. The bulk of the film takes place in a mansion, and you get a good feel of what that mansion is like thanks to the direction. To some extent, the mansion is as important a character as any other in the film, and you become so familiar with it that you could probably draw the layout, post movie. Its quaint and classic look feels timeless, which is what the movie tries so hard to achieve.
The performances of the star-studded cast are wonderful, especially since they are playing quirky characters. Most of them play against a type, and it gives these thespians a chance to flex their acting muscles on screen. It's a pity that the story does such a disservice to their portrayals of a semi-dysfunctional family, otherwise it would have been a lovely masterpiece.
Knives Out is a whodunnit that is so focused on a twist that it forgets to be a properly motivated story. It's an example of how a fantastic script can become mangled in execution, and perhaps why the director and writer of a movie should not be the same person (Rian Johnson is both, but can you really trust a director to look at his or her own script with a critical eye when shooting a film?). It looks nice, both in terms of set design and cast, but it needed far more work on its story (and in the editing room).
Should you watch this at weekday movie ticket prices? Yes.
Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? No.
Running time: 130 min
Knives Out is a mystery movie.
It is directed and written by Rian Johnson. It stars Daniel Craig (Detective Benoit Blanc), Chris Evans (Hugh Drysdale), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera), Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda Drysdale), Michael Shannon (Walter Thrombey), Don Johnson (Richard Drysdale), Toni Collette (Joni Thrombey), Lakeith Stanfield (Detective Elliot), Katherine Langford (Megan Thrombey), Jaeden Martell (Jacob Thrombey), and Christopher Plummer (Harlan Thrombey). It is rated PG13.
Knives Out is out in cinemas:
- 27 November, 2019 (Singapore)
- 27 November, 2019 (Malaysia)
Marcus Goh is a television scriptwriter who writes for “Crimewatch”, as well as popular shows like “Lion Mums”, “Code of Law”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.
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