Knives Out: The Path of Least Resistance

By Prof. Zach Cheney

The film review below is overtly and shamelessly negative toward a movie that has been generally very well received. But that's all the more reason for a dissenting view, right?!

When Robert Pattinson signed on for a Batman movie (sorry, The Batman movie), there was initial horror among cinephiles and RPatt-ophiles that everyone's favorite Twilight vet—widely perceived as having disavowed the mainstream for artsy, foreign films—was selling out. But then the idea sprang up that RPatt was actually taking one for the team: scoring a wad of cash by donning a cape so that he could afford to continue making movies like The Lighthouse and Good Times. In a word, nah. Those Dior commercials, alone, will keep him financially comfortable beyond most of our wildest dreams. He doesn't need the dough.


I heard/read a similar sentiment about Rian Johnson—also weirdly beloved by a bunch of card-carrying cinema purists for having upset Star Wars geeks with a purtier, redder Star Wars movie—when he pocketed his paycheck from a Disney-Lucasfilm joint and went off to make "the movie he really wanted to make," Knives Out. This movie, by comparison, gets marketed (or at least discussed) as a sort of indie film. That's funny, because it was produced by Lionsgate, a pretty major and wildly profitable company that's been involved in possible mergers/acquisitions by the likes of Viacom and Amazon. Add to that a cast with more A-listers than The Last Jedi and a not-exactly-indie-level $40 million budget, and you have nothing near a "small movie," except when you hold it next to a major franchise like Star Wars.

So, anyway, I guess I just find this idea that stars and directors participate in mainstream ventures to fund their smaller pursuits a tad naïve. Much more likely, they're savvy people who want to cast as wide a net as possible to an ever-broadening fan base, and they know that image matters in that strategic process.


Which is all to say...nothing, really. I don't think all of that has anything to do with my enjoyment of the film, or lack thereof. As far as that goes, I wish I liked it more. I'm all for the genre of the whodunit, I'm all for the cast, I'm all for the attempts at innovative plotting (although my wife called out the villain within the first 15 minutes, so). I didn't laugh the way a lot of people did; it felt, rather, like the film was trying to be funny. I wasn't particularly moved by the social statement it made; it felt, rather, like the film was trying to be progressive. I wasn't knocked out by the film's construction, which was simultaneously restless and boring. I yearned for a stylistic strategy that did more than highlight the ostentatious mise-en-scène within the house versus the more drab world outside. And I'm fine with a narrative gimmick like puking, but its implementation here was both predictable and just-beyond believable.

I read Knives Out getting compared with Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001), which I find far more intelligent, artistic, and pleasurable. Altman's film has going for it a critique that transcends class as well as a sense of history, reaching back to Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939). Knives Out, on the other hand, is clearly a genre pic of the variety you can find almost anywhere nowadays, and it takes the thematic path of least resistance. It announces its derivativeness and bases its iconography on it. Its shiny veneer replicates the showiness of its diegesis—of which it is so obviously critical!—and its self-satisfaction as A Certain Kind of Movie looks suspiciously like the work of the hands behind a certain franchise sequel that was clearly designed to Look Different. Let me clarify that last sentence: the film critiques the wealth of the upper class and mocks the hypocrisy of the well-to-do. And yet, the film itself flaunts an upper-crust aesthetic with a cast of millionaires while encouraging us to root for a marginalized character. The film could have treated this paradox with irony, but it doesn't. Instead, the paradox becomes merely a contradiction that purports to ally itself with the disenfranchised.


All these issues make the question, posed by various critics online, as to whether the film is "about goodness" versus some kind of vengeance rather uninteresting to me. The film's last image gives the audience the perfect amount of ambiguity to be, at heart, almost exactly like the ending(s) of the film Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985): a choose-your-own-ending finale, except in this case it's choose-your-own-meaning. Interpret it however it makes you feel best: goodness, vengeance, justice, payback, whatever. In a way, that annoys me most of all.


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