Movie Review: Knives Out

I’m not going to movies in theaters much these days, which means I don’t know what movies are playing these days. But Knives Out caught my eye when my colleague Cassie let me know that I should in fact be interested.

Umineko: When They Cry, the Japanese visual novel with a very similar premise, has clearly become very important to me, even inspiring me to write my own mystery. So I decided I wasn’t going to miss Knives Out.

And it turns out that was the right decision! Knives Out was a very fun detective movie, just over the line from serious into goofy. I feel like the summary of the movie from IMDb is really most of what you need to know to decide whether you want to see it:

When renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead at his estate just after his 85th birthday, the inquisitive and debonair Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is mysteriously enlisted to investigate. From Harlan’s dysfunctional family to his devoted staff, Blanc sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind Harlan’s untimely death.

That is what you get, with the tone as described as above, and assurance from me that director Rian Johnson did a good job making it fun and having it all hold together.

I will say that it felt fast, despite being over two hours of movie. As a detective movie it deliberately has several layers, but then it has to get through them all in a reasonable amount of time. I don’t think it was bad, but I also think it could have just as easily been a whole 10-episode miniseries as a movie, which seems to be the Thing To Do these days. We could have then sat with each layer a little longer, trying to puzzle it out ourselves, and we could have gotten to see more from some of the minor characters. (Then again, I’m not sure if I would have gotten around to seeing it if it were a 10-episode miniseries.)

It’s not a hardcore mystery. Like Murder on the Orient Express, there’s not really enough time to do much of your own sleuthing before the movie hands you answers, and it’s got holes in it like everything else. But every few scenes Knives Out reminds you that you’re not supposed to be taking it seriously, and it’s got enough cleverness to satisfy you anyway. Or at least it did for me—I enjoyed Knives Out a lot more than I did Orient Express. (I appreciate movies that manage to hit this balance, like Looper. Oh hey, that was also Rian Johnson!)

I don’t just want this review to be for people who’ve read Umineko, but it was fun seeing how many characters and twists in Knives Out lined up with the archetypes from Umineko, from the family squabbles to the puzzle-loving grandfather to the third-floor window. Knives Out feels like a Massachusetts-colored Fragment that was discarded for being a bit too silly, and if you liked Umineko you’ll probably enjoy Knives Out.

For anyone who hasn’t read Umineko, you should see Knives Out if you like detective stories, especially humorous takes on snooty detective stories. That could include TV cop/detective shows too. It’s not a must-see by any means, but it is a fun ride.

And for anyone who enjoyed Knives Out and wants more, you should read Umineko.