Knives Out & Honey
Boy December 2, 2019
On a modern-day whodunit and a heartrending autobiography
lots come to me at such odd moments — when I am walking along the street, or examining a hat shop.” So said mystery writer Agatha
Christie when once asked about her creative process. We suspect that the same goes for Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), one of the characters in the new whodunit comedy Knives Out. Thrombey, like Christie, is among the most successful mystery writers in the world. Eighty million copies of his books have been sold; all have been translated into more than 30 languages. He doesn’t seem to be thinking about retiring: as the film opens, he’s just celebrated his 85th birthday, as sharp as ever. But unfortunately for Thrombey, he will not be the one to mastermind the whodunit propelling Knives Out. More tragically, he’s the story-driving victim at its center. Cheekily, though, Thrombey makes sure to take the time to briefly relish a bit in his looming victimhood. When he realizes that he’s about to die in the movie, Thrombey jots down the
circumstances of his prospective demise in his trusty notebook as a story idea. Hopefully, he’ll be lucky enough to dramatize it. (He won't be.)
Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson, has been made in the same tradition as Christie’s (and by my guess also Thrombey's) most famous novels. But just as emphasized is that its ensemble — the majority of whom have gotten used to living lavishly as Harlan’s relatives — are rich scoundrels. This was always true in Christie’s mostly upper-class-set books, too. But Johnson wants the cynicism to have a modern-day lift. One of the characters, we learn, started their own business after receiving a loan of about $1.5 million, though likes to refer to themselves as self-made. Some of the characters talk openly about their dislike of those who immigrate “the wrong way” in front of a hired helper, whose family has immigrated, as many of the Thrombeys would declare, “the wrong way.”
Much of the action in Knives Out is set inside Harlan’s mansion, a palatial and moody beast not unlike the interior evoked in the Clue puzzle box. On Harlan's turf, myriad whodunit clichés pop up. His death, as told to the family members strolling around the premises, is a suicide. He was found in his upstairs office, his throat cut. A private eye is on the scene: he’s a sage named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), and is so renowned that Harlan’s lifestyle-guru daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), makes sure to point out that she once read a tweet about a New Yorker article about him. Blanc, like Christie’s famed detectives, has a winsome cartoonishness to him. Hercule Poirot had his egg-shaped head and body, penciled-in mustache, and prominent French accent. Miss Marple was the septuagenarian who used old-lady sweetness to cover up her Holmes-level wit. And Blanc has a Southern drawl to rival any Tennessee Williams character, a tendency to sing to himself during spots of boredom, and a deceptive sense of humor.
The first act of Knives Out involves Blanc interrogating the Thrombeys, digging for motives. (He suspects this is all rooted in foul play, since he was hired by an unknown someone just before Harlan’s death, and since people typically don't kill themselves the way Harlan apparently did.) We learn that essentially every member of the family, in fact, does have something to gain from their patriarch's death. But everyone expectedly lies to Blanc’s face. One has to admit that they’re pretty good at it, though I didn’t suspect for a minute that Blanc altogether believed them, which defeats the purpose. The latter, with few other options besides the benefit-of-the-doubt-giving police to aid him, enlists Harlan’s caregiver and friend Marta (Ana de Armas) as his Watson. She seems like a nice person, and doesn’t have anything to potentially gain from Harlan’s death. (She’s also cleverer than the Thrombeys think — a bonus.) Plus, she has an unfortunate condition where she vomits every time she lies, so it’s likely that Blanc can trust her.
Johnson knows well and superbly executes the comfortable predictabilities that help make a satisfactory whodunit. Knives Out is filled with convincing red herrings and audacious twists, and finally climaxes with one of those monologues where the private detective at the film’s center high-soundingly reveals not only who the murderer is but what they almost got away with. We revel in the killer’s cleverness but more so the shamus’s capacity to both put it all together and comprehensibly walk us through the scheme.
The difference with Johnson’s take on the whodunit is that his writing and direction have a more jaundiced kick to them. The usual suspects in a lot of mystery works teeter on caricature, and so we come to like or dislike them almost purely based on how they serve the narrative. But Johnson has fashioned the Thrombeys to resemble one of the mega-wealthy and decidedly ruthless and publicly infamous dynasties who dependably attract anger-inducing headlines. These despicable people — save for Marta, who’s kind and just happens to be mixed up in all of this — don’t really begin and end on the page. They’re real-life figures remixed. The actors, as big-named as you’d anticipate in a well-budgeted whodunit (we have Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, and the unrelated-to-his-director Don Johnson here to stir up trouble), eagerly chew on the different kinds of solipsism these characters show off. But there’s a sense that they, too, know exactly that the people they’re playing aren’t quite the usual board-game “types” who ordinarily populate a whodunit.
The movie is slightly better than this year’s Ready or Not, a comedy thriller which also unmercifully satirized the lives and personae of the silver spoon-fed. Still, the latter functions well as a great companion piece. Both features wittily undermine familiar genre tropes with pertinence. Whereas a horde of mystery movies and novels of yore simply wanted us to cheer as the murderer was outsmarted, here basically no one in the greedy cast of characters is left unscathed. Johnson especially seems like he wants us to lick our lips in glee at the final shot. I didn’t at the screening I attended, but with hindsight I might as well have.
Daniel Craig and Lakeith Stanfield in 2019's Knives Out.
saw Knives Out a few hours after I did Honey Boy, a drama that dramatizes part of the upbringing of the actor Shia LaBeouf, who writes and stars in the movie. In comparison to Honey Boy, which is a film in chronic
anguish, Knives Out is a film-length painkiller at least for the viewer.
Honey Boy flashes back and forth between two timelines: the mid-1990s, during which LaBeouf’s equal, Otis, is played by Noah Jupe and is the star of a kid’s TV show; and the mid-aughts, where Otis is played by Lucas Hedges. In the second universe, Otis is suffering from alcoholism and PTSD and is in rehab. We find out that his young-adult struggles have mostly to do with his childhood — a period during which he was a working actor domineered by his stage parent, a felon named James (played by LaBeouf). James is confident in his kid’s talent but is unstable, generally overly intense, and is not opposed to physical and emotional abuse. James and young Otis live in a motel room, where their dysfunctional relationship simmers.
Honey Boy traverses the two periods enough to turn them into simulacra, and show how they’re representative not just of LaBeouf’s decades-long torment but also how they’ve informed the parts of his life that aren’t being put to the screen. The film is basically all raw nerves, and though I don’t think it totally works — it’s too circular to make its eventual catharsis feel merited, even though it undoubtedly is — the poignancy LaBeouf is able to derive from his life is impressive and moving. Alma Har’el’s direction matches her subject’s heart-on-the-sleeve instincts, never putting a varnish on anything we’re seeing. Building a prickly movie on a prickly parent-child relationship is a risky thing, especially when one of its parties is so involved in its making. But Honey Boy pulls it off, absconding from melodrama and employing pathos that have the drive of a purge or cleanse. LaBeouf has given us a lot of joy over the course of his career; Honey Boy shows us the cost that came with.
Knives Out: A-
Honey Boy: B+