Clever, metatextual movies don’t have to be intellectual or gnomic: sometimes they can just be hella entertaining. The most obvious way in which this occurs is through generic playfulness, which is the beating heart of Knives Out: ‘this is a murder mystery’ is written through it like the name of a seaside resort through a stick of rock. Almost every scene and every shot produces ironic traction against any given murder mystery each viewer may have seen or read, and against the sum corpus of all murder mysteries. This is not to say that Rian Johnson’s film is unremittingly arch and knowing, just that there is a constant uncertainty as to whether the audience’s generic expectations will be satisfied, or exploited to misdirect them. Fun is poked at every facet of the genre, but it is affectionate fun.
Within this tissue of generic conventions and stylistic types, Johnson’s screenplay puts surprisingly plausible words in his characters’ mouths. Although the central set-up calls for certain kinds of privileged character, director and actors do the imaginative work to construct concrete and three-dimensional versions of the people their social context might produce. Ana de Armas’s ingénue feels like an everywoman, carrying the audience’s identification into the heart of the narrative by means of an entirely tenable background and character—despite also being given the ludicrous structural mechanism of vomiting every time she lies. The only character that isn’t really rounded out at all is Daniel Craig’s southern gentleman-detective, Benoit Blanc—his detailing is entirely drawn from the operational lore of cinema, but it’s all the better for it. His is a charismatic performance which continually dances around generic expectation: without being remotely shambling or Columbo-esque, he hovers indeterminately on an elusive boundary between elegant brilliance and fantasist buffoonery, and it is left until one of the final scenes to collapse this wave-function.
The film is specifically a country-house mystery, in which a closed circle of suspects are gathered together in and around the narrative and dramatic device of an enclosing edifice. In this case the house is neither isolated nor sealed, but it is the structural core of the setting nevertheless, and it is the characters’ presence there at a particular time that defines the circle of suspicion. In some such stories the house is a barely distinguished backdrop, but in this case it’s a character in its own right. Its interior design was attended to with great care, and displays a wonderful combination of early twentieth-century cosiness and appalling failures of taste. The victim is the house’s owner, a successful mystery writer, which accounts for the bizarre knife sculpture, but most of it just looks like someone was having fun.
So far, so silly. None of this will make Knives Out sound like a profound or groundbreaking picture, and indeed it’s not: it’s predicated entirely on picking over some of the most well-cultivated ground in the cinematic canon, and if it has anything much to tell us it’s something about films, not life. So without seeing it, it’s probably hard to understand just how good this movie is. The way its characters are articulated in and through its convoluted plot; the way dialogue and drama are simultaneously plausible and delightfully generic; the visual design and cinematography, both sumptuous and instrumental, serving and reinforcing the atmosphere and tension. Every aspect is crafted to an unusual degree of precision, and judged carefully for its contribution to the whole. Anyone who’s not much interested in murder mysteries will probably still be entertained by Johnson’s take on them, and anyone who likes films will almost certainly have their socks knocked off by this one.