When they made a movie out of the board game Clue, I was annoyed that the characters weren’t color-coded: Ms Scarlett wore a green dress, Mr Green a brown suit, Mrs White was in black. I mean, who involved in that over-the-top, silly production thought it would be a step too far to dress the characters as their matching playing pieces?
Well, rest assured that Knives Out goes balls-out with its self-referential silliness, and we have a lot more fun because of it.
It’s not just the plot that delights in fakery, it’s the entire production. The action takes place in a Hollywood prop warehouse, where they just piled up the marble busts and taxidermy and coats of arms enough to lay camera tracks. Then, in what feels like a movie opening with its own trailer (know your branding), our star-studded game pieces are ushered in one-by-one.
Instead of color-coded characters, this updated Clue codes its ensemble using movie-culture zeitgeist: Mrs Hollywood Royalty (Jamie Lee Curtis); Mr 90s Comeback (Don Johnson); a hot Chris (Evans); Mr Go-to Menace (Michael Shannon); Ms Every Gay’s Favorite Character Actress (Toni Collette). They play siblings (in-laws in Johnson and Collette’s cases) who’ve gathered in the prop warehouse/old mansion to throw a birthday party for Mr Only Actor Still Alive from Hollywood’s Golden Age (Christopher Plummer), who’s their wealthy murder-mystery novelist (wink wink) father. When it seems he has slit his own throat the night after the party, we meet the A-lister having the most fun of all, reluctant Bond Daniel Craig as Southern-accented detective dandy Benoit Blanc, a name that covers nods to both Clue and Agatha Christie.
The cleverest part of Knives Out is that the whodunit is revealed in the first act, so the movie can spend its time showing this family of entitled, bigoted and wealthy pricks – a class of people who are fast becoming the world’s collective nemesis – twisting in discomfort at the idea of being caught in their own web.
Jamie Lee Curtis, styled like all those older West LA lesbians whom you can’t figure out where they get the kind of money to stock wine cellars and shop at LA Eyeworks, is the Don Trump Jr of this nasty brigade, pretending to be a brilliant self-made businessperson when she got a million-dollar start from daddy. Toni Collette is a lifestyle guru too lazy and hollow to keep up her brand so falls back on the father figure to stay relevant. So, Ivanka, right? Evans, with skin so porelessly pristine he could be a blow-up doll I’d mortgage my house for, represents a broader group – the properly-gened white male scions taking up space at Ivy-league colleges, prestigious law firm intern pools and campaign offices for candidates other than Bernie Sanders. The fact that they all fall victim to the callous whims of a patriarch who channels his meager affections to a beautiful young immigrant puts the final knife in the analogy.
While the movie mainly wants us to have fun laughing along with Blanc at these ugly people, it’s structured to comment, subversively, on our currently fraught issue of ‘facts’ vs ‘truth’. The facts of the murder’s perpetrator and weapon are revealed right away, while the truth of various characters’ motivations and culpability are harder to pin down. Knives Out is certainly not presenting itself as anything political, but it’s there.
Whodunits are the most interactive movie genre, turning us all into fellow detectives. I can’t recall a time when someone in my audience at one of these films didn’t spontaneously yell out “I knew it!” at a pivotal reveal. We leave with a smile at having enjoyed playing the game, but Knives Out sends us away with a little extra kick – the satisfaction of watching the wealthy get their comeuppance from the very person they most marginalized.
As Brandi Carlile pointed out about those bent on putting people low, let ‘em laugh while they can, because ultimately, the joke’s on them.
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