Since the beginning of the Obama era, the Left has broadcast two contradictory messages on the subjects of race and immigration. The first is that a so-called Coalition of the Ascendant will inevitably displace white Americans as the dominant force in the country’s politics and culture. The second is that rejoinders in the “You will not replace us” vein are a racist overreaction that mark one as a pimply alt-right incel. Progressives tried a similar move with great success during the homosexuality debates of the ’90s and aughts, deploying a stinking amalgam of the incompatible arguments “Stop opposing gay marriage, bigot” and “No one is calling for gay marriage.” In both cases, the point of the exercise is to advance steadily toward the goal while appearing not to move at all: to show the blade only in the instant before one strikes.
Knives Out, a new murder mystery by Rian Johnson (director of Looper, Brick, and a rumored fourth Star Wars trilogy, God help us), is an example of the point being thrust in, not ostentatiously sheathed. A beautifully executed piece of left-wing trollery, it revels in the alleged moral superiority of the “oppressed” and dares its audience to object. Like many of the Agatha Christie novels from which Johnson clearly drew his inspiration, Knives Out is set in a sprawling Victorian mansion. The house’s owner, the celebrated crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), has just celebrated his 85th birthday when he is found, throat slit, in a tucked-away study, accessible not only by creaky stairs but through a hidden window that features heavily in the mystery’s eventual solution.
Creeping through these and other passages are the members of Harlan’s family: a throng of scheming underachievers whose various hustles require Harlan’s money and, just possibly, his death. That these characters are instantly distinguishable from one another is one of the great strengths of Johnson’s writing and directing. (The other is the film’s pacing, which is superb.) The script employs types — Jamie Lee Curtis as an all-business hard-ass, Toni Collette as a deranged Goop-stage Gwyneth Paltrow doppelgänger — but each character is given sufficient backstory, and enough funny lines, to allow the audience to keep them straight.
Joining Curtis, Collette, and a few other famous faces on-screen are the picture’s two leads: Daniel Craig as a Kentucky-fried private detective (think of a drunk Mitch McConnell attempting Hercule Poirot) and Ana de Armas as Harlan’s South American nurse and confidante. Though Craig and de Armas both do strong work, their two characters function far too obviously as screenwriting devices. Craig’s detective exists to advance the plot and give voice to the audience’s incomplete theories of the crime. De Armas’s caregiver serves as a vessel into which progressive viewers can pour their racial pieties. Because Knives Out is more than just a 21st-century revision of the 20th’s parlor-room mysteries (and more, too, than an update on the entertaining first chapters of John Grisham’s 1999 bestseller The Testament, to which Johnson owes a modest debt).
Instead, the movie’s most important influence is not a thriller at all but E. M. Forster’s Edwardian masterpiece Howard’s End, in which the question of who will possess a house becomes a metaphor for who will possess a nation. Closest to Rian Johnson’s heart — closer by far than the red herrings and false confessions with which he amuses the audience — is the matter of what will become of Harlan Thrombey’s mansion, and it is in the dispensing of this inheritance that the movie abandons any interest in moral complexity. Harlan’s family is irredeemably wicked: a gaggle of Trump-supporting white people whose sins against decency are aesthetic as much as moral (check out the dad sweater on Michael Shannon). De Armas’s nurse, meanwhile, is an agent of pure goodness — a character of such benevolence that she literally cannot lie (the film’s stupidest detail) without becoming ill and vomiting.
Predictably, the script’s attempts to nail down these characterizations are almost uniformly ham-fisted, a flaw that appears to have occurred to no one who participated in its composition or filming. Members of the family lazily signal their bigotry, for instance, by repeatedly forgetting their South American employee’s country of origin. And de Armas’s caregiver is revealed to be a good person in part by the solemn avowal of Craig’s detective, “You’re a good person.” Only one zinger in this vein truly lands, and only then because Johnson finally comes up with a line that a member of the nationalist Right might actually say. Responding to a declaration that de Armas’s character must not be allowed to seize the family’s “ancestral home,” Craig’s detective retorts that Harlan bought it from Pakistani businessmen in the late eighties. Blood and soil? Not so much.
Anyone who doubts that Knives Out is, and means to be, a commentary on the future of race dynamics in this country need only examine the movie’s intensely political concluding shot, in which Harlan’s family is cast from the manse and left to dwell in the outer darkness. As an annihilation fantasy for woke white moviegoers, the image works perfectly — it’s the ending of the year. No wonder the suburban audience with whom I saw the film responded with a burst of delighted laughter and applause.
Not that I’m uncouth enough to object, mind you.