Knives Out isn’t as sharp as it seems

Photo credit: Mackenzie Gerry

Photo credit: Mackenzie Gerry

A cast of fan-favourites soaked with blood and embroiled in a murder mystery — “what could possibly go wrong?” is something both the characters and creators of Knives Out could have once asked. Within both the plot and the creation, the answer is an awful lot.

Knives Out is writer-director Rian Johnson’s homage to Agatha Christie murder mysteries. The intent behind the film was to update the classic whodunnit for a modern audience. This mostly means the character lineup now includes new stock characters, like a weed-smoking “liberal snowflake” and a social media-addicted “alt-right troll” who is “literally a nazi” — each other’s words, not mine.

The film is sleek and absorbing, a thrill ride that keeps your eyes glued to it, scanning through shots of eccentric statues and sprawling landscapes for clues. The characters are engaging; we know little about most of them, as they’re not there to do anything more than have motives, alibis and deep dark secrets. Still, Toni Collette as a woo-woo Instagram influencer, for instance, offers a fun break for both her and the audience.

The satirical spin Johnson has put on this film does not go unappreciated, as the cast is almost strictly made up of entitled, self-important potential-heirs at the centre of it who are solely concerned with the mystery of who gets what in the will rather than the murder. Their bickering and gripes with each other earn laughs through sheer familiarity. Speaking of the murder, the mystery itself is air-tight, offering slick answers to every question the film poses.

From the get-go, the set-up is spot-on and perfect. We have the lavish manor the tragedy took place in, so prominent that it becomes a character in its own right and an ensemble of quirky, conventional characters that we don’t get to know too well. However, we know them well enough to read some motives and the astute yet eccentric detective at the centre of the investigation — every convention of the murder mystery is in place.

In setting all of this up, planning out an enthralling mystery itself was somehow left to the wayside. There is a semblance of it: there is a strong set-up and a stiff promise that the audience will be dragged along a path of uncertainty, all of which is executed well. But instead of allowing the audience to put the puzzle together as the characters do, Knives Out lays the entire mystery bare.

The foreshadowing is so heavy-handed that it sets the stage for all of the events rather than hints at them. Attempts at creating twists and turns feel like the logical next step to a linear story rather than shocks. The first guess your mind lands on while watching this film — the probable red herring, the answer that’s too obvious to be true — is the right one. Everything that feels like a build-up to a surprising grand reveal is, instead, a build-up to the closing credits; even if the film succeeds as an enjoyable watch, going in anticipating a genuine mystery will leave a viewer hungry for more.

Knives Out plays it too safe for even its name let alone its premise. Most of the jokes are generic, ones that sound as though they’ve been recycled for decades of cinema. For an ensemble cast, barely any of them seem to have a substantial motive for committing the crime. It handles everything with a light touch yet still finds itself far too clever for its own good. Knives Out did very little to revitalize the whodunnit — it may succeed in being an easy watch and a crowd pleaser, but it has failed in the only thing it had intended to do.

Knives Out is presented by The Film House in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. It will have three more showings over the next two weeks.

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