Knives Out – A Great Take on the WhoDunnit from Start to Finish (Spoiler-Free + Ending Explained)

Rian Johnson manages to create an extremely elaborate, well-crafted, well-paced mystery with a hell of a message.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free)

The great mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead, apparently having slit his own throat. Despite the fact that it appears clearly self-inflicted, the great detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired to investigate the Thrombey household. This includes Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s needy youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their Alt-Right son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Harlan’s flighty widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), and her perpetual student daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). Not on the suspect list is Harlan’s kind and honest nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), one of his closest friends and Benoit Blanc’s new assistants. However, not everything is as it seems, and almost everyone has a motive to have caused Harlan’s untimely demise. It turns out that many members are much more desperate than they appear at first, and when people get desperate, the knives come out.

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Very colorful cast.

END SUMMARY

I’m a big fan of detective fiction, as evidenced by the tattoo of Sherlock Holmes on my chest. While I was concerned at first that this movie would be a little more of a mystery farce in the vein of Clue (which I also love), I can assure you that while this movie has many funny parts, the film is an extremely well-crafted whodunnit. There are traditionally two kinds of whodunnits: One is the kind where the audience is just as much in the dark as the characters, and one where the audience is told some version of events that the characters aren’t and the deduction is in finding out the missing how. This movie is more akin to the latter, but it’s done in a style that I’ve only seen done well a few times in fiction and never this well in a movie. I don’t want to reveal too much about the structure, but let me say that it simultaneously tells the audience everything they need to know to figure out the mystery from about 25 minutes in, but also paces all the reveals and red herrings so perfectly that you’ll never be 100% sure. Even if you do guess the ending relatively early on, trust me, it’s still just a really well crafted narrative.

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And dear god do I want more of Benoit Blanc. 

Honestly, almost everything in this movie is high-level. The sets, particularly the mansion in which most of the film takes place, are all immaculate. The mansion contains tons of references to Harlan’s fictional bibliography, some of which are identified and others are references to titles shown to the audience. It is also filled with the kind of relics and odd antiques that a mystery mansion is supposed to have. I think one of my favorite elements is that every room has a bar in it, either open or, more often, hidden. It IS a writer’s house, after all; sobriety is for the reader.

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Here, the bar is in the model house behind Blanc. 

The characters are all great. Every performance is on point and the personalities are intentionally so diverse that you could guess who said any given line just by the content. Their outfits are so similarly diverse that it really does feel like a Clue board, where you can tell the characters by just a glance. They each have their strange idiosyncrasies which play into the mystery. Also, Chris Evans rocks a sweater. 

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Watching him be a jerk is amazing. 

The structure of the film starts with the Rashomon-style interrogation in which it becomes clear that everyone remembers the night of Harlan’s death a little differently and, while the audience sees more than the characters say, we also get some inconsistencies in the depictions. It works to quickly establish the duplicity of the suspects and also to give the audience some clues to play with. From there, it plays out similar to most detective stories. 

Overall, this is just a great film and I recommend it to everyone.

ENDING EXPLAINED (SPOILERS)

So, just a reminder: Marta thought she’d overdosed Harlan with morphine. Fearing for her mom’s safety as an illegal immigrant, Harlan killed himself and set up a way to avoid suspicion on Marta. Turns out that she hadn’t overdosed Harlan because Ransom had switched the vials, planning on framing her for killing Harlan. He ends up going to jail and Marta gets all of Harlan’s money.

Watching the last third of the movie was exactly what I was looking for: A great detective breaking everything down dramatically. It’s clear that everything in the movie was setting up for this ultimate and amazing explanation and it pays off. Even though from the beginning we are led to think that Marta is the innocent woman who is being tormented by a completely understandable mistake and circumstances. Sure, the missing Naloxone from the kit stands out as the first hint that something more may be at play, but it’s also completely possible that it was really just a tragic accident. Since we know that Marta is a good person, watching her torment herself over the truth is just as terrible as watching the Thrombey family try to torment her to give them their money back. That doubles the satisfaction when it’s revealed that not only was it not her fault, but that she was in fact an unwitting victim.

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THIS IS HOW YOU FRAME A REVEAL, PEOPLE. 

This plays into a big theme in the movie that I really like: The power of kindness. Benoit Blanc points it out himself when he says that Marta ends up winning not by playing Harlan’s game or by playing the Thrombey’s game, but by playing her game and being a kind and honest person. She is saved because she works so hard to save Fran (Edi Patterson) even though it means her own end, allowing her to make the final gambit against Ransom and getting him to confess. The movie makes it clear that the thing that sets her apart is that she is caring, she is genuine, and she is selfless. When Meg, a seemingly honest person, betrays Marta, Marta not only says she’s going to help Meg, but forgives her instantly, understanding her position. The movie even drives home that basically no one in the family can comprehend Harlan’s lesson to them and it’s not just that Marla is kinder than they are, it’s that she is actually the American dream like Harlan was. 

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I love that the angle on the weapon display is never quite framed right except at the end.

Harlan makes a large point out of being self-made, as do his children. The problem is that none of the children are actually self-made. Linda, Harlan’s favorite, does at least run her own company and thus is not really being cut off, but she only has the company because Harlan loaned her Eight Million Dollars that she used to found it. Joni doesn’t really work and has just been stealing from Harlan using Meg as a cover. Even after Harlan gives her enough money to pay for the rest of Meg’s college, she lies and tells Meg that she can’t pay for it so that Meg will betray Marta. Walt basically only has anything because his father allows him to publish his books and even that’s not enough for him. At the end of the movie, Marta, who had nothing, became an expert nurse and Go player, and is the daughter of an illegal immigrant, has everything. She’s literally above them all on the balcony.

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The one who takes it best is also the one who fought Michael Myers. 

I do also want to comment, possibly to my own detriment, on the fact that Rian Johnson gave all of the Thrombeys wildly different political views and personalities. When they’re comfortable, they fight over politics and philosophies, ranging from Richard’s casual racism to Joni’s Liberalism to Jacob’s very direct racism, we’re still shown that they’re all fairly equally dismissive of Marta, just using her as an example to back their side when convenient (and none of them bother to know which country her family is from). However, once the money is threatened, they’re all united on one point: Get the money back. They all come up with different justifications for why they deserve the money, but despite the fact that they’ve all been earning much more than 99% of the world for the last few decades, all of them believe they’re entitled to more. It’s a not-so-subtle commentary, indicating that the wealthy will always want more. Marta, like Harlan, is more likely to be generous because they were poor once and value having things more. Ultimately, while the movie shows the Thrombeys fighting over politics as a “liberal versus conservative” battle, the final and more honest struggle is between the exploiters and the exploited. It’s a pretty solid theme to sneak into a mystery film.

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Grouch on the Couch Review: Halloween (2018) – Decent Movie, Lousy Horror Film

So, a ton of people have been lauding this film. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe my expectations were too high. I was hoping to really see a solid follow-up to the original Halloween, a film that remains one of the scariest things I have ever watched. That’s not what I got. Look, I sat through the three “return of Michael Myers” Halloween films and Halloween H20. I watched Busta Rhymes kung-fu kick one of the greatest horror villains in film in Halloween Resurrection. I watched the good and the bad of the Rob Zombie remakes. I have paid my damn dues, I deserve another well-made Halloween film.

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Paul Rudd wishes I didn’t know his dark secret, but I do. (Halloween 6)

I don’t want to hold back on this one, so *SPOILERS* on this review, because I’ve got some venting to do.

PLOT AND STUFF

This movie takes place 40 years to the day after the main events of the first Halloween movie. All of the sequels are ignored, including Halloween II, which means that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is not, in fact, the sister of Michael Myers (Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney), something that I definitely consider a good call.

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Also no Busta Rhymes kung-fu kicking. So, that’s a good call.

A pair of journalists (Rhian Rees and Jefferson Hall) who have a podcast go to interview Michael Myers at the asylum that he has occupied since 1978. They bring his mask as an offer to get him to speak, but Michael doesn’t acknowledge their presence. Shortly after, while being transferred, Michael’s bus crashes, freeing him. His doctor, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), survives the crash, but is shot by a boy who comes upon the scene. Michael coincidentally finds the podcasters, kills a mechanic for his signature jumpsuit, then murders them both to reclaim his mask. He then drives back to Haddonfield, Illinois.

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Michael is canonically 61 years old in this movie, but arthritis doesn’t effect pure evil.

Over the last 40 years Laurie Strode has pretty much been suffering constant PTSD about the night that she was attacked. She has a daughter, Karen (Judy “Wait, Judy Greer?” Greer), who thinks she’s insane after raising her to be able to fight Michael, and a granddaughter, Allyson (Andi “No, wait, go back, Judy Greer is the daughter?” Matichak), who Laurie secretly speaks to. However, when she finds that he has escaped, she’s almost excited at the prospect of being able to kill him.

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She certainly looks completely sane.

Michael goes on a killing spree that alternates between awesome and almost comically cliché before Dr. Sartain, who has gone insane with his desire to see his prized subject reunited with Laurie. They reach Laurie’s house before Michael kills Sartain, resulting in Michael approaching the house to kill Laurie, Karen, Allyson, and Karen’s husband Ray (Toby “Judy Greer was a weird casting choice” Huss). Ultimately, Karen, Laurie, and Allyson manage to trap Michael in the basement and set the entire house ablaze. However, the last shot of the basement shows it to be empty, implying that Michael escaped.

END PLOT AND STUFF

The original Halloween wasn’t the first of the slasher genre or even the holiday-themed slasher genre (Black Christmas and Silent Night, Bloody Night were earlier), but Halloween took everything that had previously been done in the genre and tweaked it a bit. Michael Myers didn’t wait for people to show up to his hunting grounds like Norman Bates or Leatherface, he came to them. He didn’t have a disturbing backstory or a love of taunting young women like the killers in the Christmas-themed slasher films, he just simply was evil. He wasn’t punishing the wicked or impure (although people have said he was, both of his creators have denied this), he just liked killing. He wasn’t supernaturally enhanced like Jason Vorhees or Freddy Krueger, he was just a normal human (in the first movie, he is briefly unmasked and is just an average person).

AND THAT’S WHY HE’S SO FRIGHTENING.

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Here he is, waiting for you on a sidewalk in the middle of the f*cking day.

He’s literally just a crazy guy who comes into your house and murders you. He doesn’t have anything against you, there’s nothing you did to cause it, and it’s a completely random death. This movie tried to maintain that aspect and, in fairness, it mostly succeeded on that front. They make a point to comment on the fact that, in the original movie, Michael Myers only killed five people, something that we now see happen in real life on a regular basis by a crazy asshole with a gun. In other words, we’ve now allowed almost any random crazy person to be Michael Myers. However, in response to pointing that out, they make sure to drive home that Michael is, in fact, his own special brand of evil, because he’s not going to stop. Mass shooters almost inevitably die in the process; Michael won’t.

However, while they do a good job with that, the actual horror environment of the film is, for lack of a better word, crap. Part of that is that much of the movie is a tribute to the original film, including a lot of scenes that are either straight replications of older scenes (so we know how they’re going to go) or they’re subversions of the older scenes (so we know how they’re going to be subverted). Normally, alternating between these would work to keep the audience on their toes, but this movie makes a mistake that, honestly, they should have avoided just by watching the original Halloween: They take too long on scenes.

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I was in the bathroom for this one, but even the trailer is too damn slow on it.

Michael Myers is at his best when the set-up is long, but it’s in the background. Some of the best parts of the 1978 version are seeing Michael lurking, unfocused, in the background of shots, something that Rob Zombie did wonderfully when he released his remake. This movie made him too focal, which, unfortunately, doesn’t make him scarier unless it’s done perfectly. Many of the set-ups were so elaborate that they felt more like a joke and a punchline than a murder. I genuinely was laughing at some of the kills.

That’s another problem: This movie has too many examples of the modern horror post-Scream semi-satirical scenes, without really adapting Michael to it. Scream was a reaction to the decline of the slasher genre, where people were bored of characters who were genre-blind or fit neatly into weird archetypes, so Wes Craven infused humor and self-awareness into horror. Now, even people who knew the rules of slasher films were going to be victims, making the audience feel vulnerable again. But, over time, directors upped the comedy, so it’s now commonplace to have humorous interludes in horror films. This film was partially written by comedian Danny McBride, so the funny scenes are really funny, to the point that it undercuts all the tension that is usually inherent with Michael Myers’ presence.

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And the trailers spoiled 2 of the best kills in the movie at the same time.

There are still a few saving graces for the film. First, Jamie Lee Curtis nails playing a crazed, obsessed Laurie Strode. She’s like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, except that she’s been waiting 30 years longer and time has started to really take its toll. Her dedication to training for this movie is admirable, although she does kind of embody Mike Tyson’s line “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Second, the kills are pretty great throughout the movie, some of them being among my favorite in the franchise. Third, while I don’t exactly like Judy Greer in most of the film (the character, not her), she also possibly has the best scene in the movie and one of the most “F*CK YES” moments in the Halloween franchise.

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Oh my god. They’ve both survived Michael Myers. That’s why they were married in Ant-Man!

Actually, there is something in the movie that I think isn’t really called out, but that I think make it slightly more interesting: Everyone assumes Laurie Strode is important to Michael. Sure, he stalks her, among other people, in the original, but in this one everyone assumes that he is breaking out to hunt her down. However, if you watch the movie, he really doesn’t give any indication that he cares about her at all this time. He doesn’t look for her, doesn’t go back to the house from the original films, and doesn’t stalk her family until her granddaughter hears one of Michael’s victims screaming, apparently by random chance. Even after seeing Laurie (and getting shot by her), Michael doesn’t make any attempt to follow her. In short:

SHE’S NOT IMPORTANT.

Unlike what’s implied in all the sequels prior to now, this means that she was just a random victim in the original. So, she’s spent her entire life training for the day he would hunt her down, but, really, the only reason they meet is A) she actually hunts HIM down and B) other characters bring them together. It’s kind of devastating, therefore, to think that Laurie Strode has spent her whole life recalling one terrible night and never being able to get over it due to the trauma, while the guy who did it apparently doesn’t think about her at all. I’m sure there is never any comparable situation to this.

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Overall, this movie didn’t scare me much. Other people might be scared by it, but I thought that they removed a lot of the dread that makes the genre work. However, the thing is that I did enjoy this as kind of a study of Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. Michael represents evil, trauma, destruction, mass murder, what have you. You don’t necessarily deserve him, but he shows up anyway and your life is either ended or wrecked. Laurie is someone who has dealt with that kind of trauma and evil, has been scarred by it horribly to the point of being a force of violence herself, and has tried to impute some meaning into the meaningless. She even does some shot-for-shot sequences where she copies Michael’s mannerisms and movements. She’s a great representation of the Nietzsche quote:

Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Like I said, I may not have been scared by it, which makes it kind of crap as a horror film, but as a character study, it does a great job. I recommend seeing it, but maybe wait until video.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.