Knives Out

Knives Out ★★★½

Might’ve been a 4 but that first half hour really labors, rushed and perfunctory in setting up its pieces-by-numbers in a way that the rest of the script isn’t. The mystery as it is initially laid out for us is nothing special for a whodunit—dirty laundry secrets not dirty enough, murder not exciting enough—and KNIVES OUT feels strangely unwilling to commit to the genre’s familiar ridiculousness—characters broad but not broad enough, social commentary bold but not bold enough, tone campy but not campy enough.

It seems a knock-off on the level of a minor Poirot episode, the only original thing it has going for it its hipness, which it eagerly broadcasts at every turn; it doesn’t help that most of the criticisms about Rian Johnson’s “too online” cringy humor are packed into those first few reels.

But then comes the realization that Johnson’s once again smuggled in something weirder under the pretenses of a straightforward genre flick; once he knocks over the Clue board and sets up several even twistier games, the film rollicks along quite nicely. The “in” jokes are more palatable, or at least the film’s other elements surge in to fill in the gaps around the dead space, once the actual plot (and outstanding character-work with Ana de Armas!) is set in motion.

And there’s a real pleasure to be found in the precision of Johnson’s tight script and self-assured direction, a throwback less to locked-room whodunits and more to a Hitchcockian thriller or a magic act—when you know you’re being toyed with but you sit back and enjoy the magic trick all the same. The thrill, after all, is in the performance, in watching the careful unspooling of a tangled web of threads, ever-aware of that steady pair of hands pulling the strings.

If KNIVES OUT truly is more Hitchcock than whodunit, the whole first half-hour is its Macguffin…if only Johnson made his Trojan horse more appealing.