Knives Out ★★★★★

In January of 2018 I did a 2am tweet storm about how terrific I think Rian Johnson’s films are and how perfectly they all feel like they‘re tailored to my taste. Five months later, I ran into Rian on the street in my neighborhood and he recognized me because we follow each other on Twitter. (Feel free to roll your eyes and dismiss this whole thing as a pointless humblebrag, but it’s relevant.) We made plans to grab lunch a few days later and did exactly that, all the while I was quietly telling myself “don’t fuck this up, absolutely do not tell him how much you are a fan of his work.” People just HATE hearing compliments, you know?

When we got lunch, we talked mostly about movies and writing and commiserated about how hard it was to motivate yourself to write anything; I was on the fifth year of passively writing my own passion project movie between jobs, and he was six months out from having written and directed a billion-dollar Star Wars movie. Very similar struggles. I restrained myself to asking just one question about his upcoming Star Wars trilogy and he said he was gonna tackle it after working on his next project, a “New York murder mystery” that was all inside of a tiny notebook he was carrying around. Still trying my best to act cool and aloof I avoided asking him any questions about it, despite being a huge absolute sucker for any and all of those words (especially “York!”) and aspiring to write a murder mystery of my own. Part of this was me not wanting to freak out someone who I hoped would become a friend by showing how much of a fan I was, and part of it was knowing as soon as I heard it was a murder mystery that I wanted to go in literally knowing as little as I possibly could. (This was a full 17 months before it’s release, and before they had even started shooting- but you can never be too careful!!)

A few weeks later, I read a Deadline article announcing Knives Out with Daniel Craig, and my imagination immediately went into overdrive, trying to figure out what the movie would be. Then casting announcements started dribbling out. Then Rian tweeted about principal photography ending. Then a poster dropped. Then a trailer. Then I went into nuclear mode and muted every possible permutation of the words “knives” and “out” to shield myself from seeing even a GIF of footage. Because I’m nuts.

There’s a very fun experience of watching a movie when you know it’s going to be twisty. At the end of the day, you want to take in a movie like Knives Out and do your best to figure out the ending before they give it to you, as if the fastest one to solve it is going to be whisked from the theater into a Mensa meeting. The more movies or stories you take in, the easier that gets. The more stories you take in, the more jaded you feel to seeing plots and plot devices recycled and the more enthralling it is to feel like you’re seeing a genuine magic trick; having someone direct a tale so well that they can lead you to a natural conclusion just before pulling the rug from under you is great, but it gets harder the more you see somebody do it. “Got your nose” only works the first few times. (Just figured the secret a week ago- the nose is a finger. Absolute bullshit.) So how do you navigate that exact dynamic, in a genre that is predicated on the very idea that such a rug-pulling has to happen? How do you fool an audience that has come to be fooled?

I think figuring that out is the secret to a truly thrilling story. And there are many ways to do it, but I think it’s not often attempted because it’s easier to surprise an audience that isn’t expecting to be surprised, such as when the genre doesn’t guarantee it (which is why a shock like the one in a certain recent-ish MCU debut film worked so well.) But when it’s done very well, you get a goooood fucking rise out of your audience. Unexpected laughs, whoas, gasps, joy screams, jaw drops, a few “turn to your friend in silent shock” faces- pretty much anything Lucille Bluth would do when she was caught by Gene Parmesan. I think I did 10 consecutive Gene Parmesans to my friends Celia and Kevin at the end of Knives Out.

Knives Out is absofuckinglutely phenomenal. I knew I was going to watch it again and again about 25 minutes in. It’s tied for my favorite movie of the year, but might just inch out the other upon subsequent viewings. (Parasite. Let’s not get into that now.) It’s an incredible script, it’s funny, it’s charming, the score is perfect, there are multiple honest-to-God dramatic AND comedic Oscar-worthy performances in it, and it manages to weave a politically incisive story that hits you over the head with its modernity but develops its characters with the same brush in a much more subtle and affecting way. And it wouldn’t work if Rian wasn’t so keyed in to knowing exactly how an audience is going to watch this movie and how to play to that, which is something he does well. For lack of a better phrase and at risk of launching a flare to attract the least funny nerds of all time, (deep belabored sigh)..... he’s very good at subverting expectations. He has made a whole career out of doing it and doing it well with every film since Brick and I think it’s why I love his work so much and why I find his movies truly inspiring. 

Rian Johnson is so deftly able to get that joyful, wondrous reaction out of me by expertly controlling every aspect of the script and the direction in a way that makes it clear he sees the entire process as a symphony that he’s conducting, where the audience is just another instrument being played. He’s terrific at leading you down the road he wants you to down and convincing you that you made the choice yourself. He’s one of my favorite directors and writers currently working today and I don’t think I would have finally finished writing my movie (a whole three weeks ago!) without taking in the lessons I’ve learned from watching his work with enormous stars in my eyes.

I will never tell him this.

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