Happy New Year everyone, it’s good to be back. This past year was crazy for me, financial problems in the first part of the year was a huge strain on my mental health and didn’t leave me many mental resources left for writing. The good news is that I found a new job, with much better pay and benefits back in October. And then a good friend of mine died, and I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to come to terms with that loss.
Things will never be the same for me, I know, I saw things when I found my friend dead that I will never be able to forget. But the more days pass, the less frequently those images flash through my mind. And I want to start writing again.
I debated what I wanted to start the new year with, certainly Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker is ripe for an All That Matters is the Ending article; but I also wanted to start the new year on a positive note, analyzing stories I want to emulate rather than simply tearing down the ones that fail. I’ll definitely get back to Rise of Skywalker, but for now, let’s talk about one of my favorite movies of 2019.
All That Matters is the Ending:
I find Knives Out remarkable for a variety of reasons; the set design and cinematography that are beyond my expertise to speak about, but I knew it was doing something right because I found myself admiring the way this film looked. The biggest things that stood out to me though were the way this film was written. It’s a whodunit that manages to avoid the common mistakes of the genre. Most films of this nature, I (and I imagine most audiences) have figured out who the killer is by the first act. Or the film goes the way of “the butler did it” and throws a completely nonsensical murderer in there to be clever and throw the audience off.
But most importantly… it tells a great story filled with just as many laughs as it has humanity.
The Dialogue is Sharp as a Knife
(See what I did there?)
I admire good dialogue, but truly great dialogue leaves me truly astonished. Such was the dialogue in Knives Out, even after multiple viewings trying to critically analyze how it was constructed, I found I kept losing myself in the enjoyment of just listening to it. There are so many subtle nuances to the dialogue construction I might well do a separate article on that alone, but the way it kept the story flowing was absolutely mesmerizing.
Right out of the gate the dialogue grabbed me. In the initial interviews with the family, Benoit Blanc begins to ask questions of his own, but before he does pays her a compliment:
As a self-made man myself I have to express my admiration for how you followed in your father’s footsteps.Benoit Blanc to Linda Thrombey
Now Daniel Craig delivers this so charmingly that both I and the character Linda, accept it at face value that it’s a compliment. It wasn’t until subsequent viewings that I realized he’s actually getting a dig in there, because he knows Linda isn’t self-made. She’s lived on her father’s fortune the same way her entire family has, but the difference is she doesn’t even realize it.
Which leads directly into the next part that makes this dialogue amazing. Benoit takes his compliment further, extending it to the entire Thrombey clan, and cleverly gets Linda’s hackles up.
[…]and Walt with his publishing empire…Benoit Blanc
Well (Shrugs)… Yes, I mean, Walt, he’s done well with what dad gave him. Not that it matters, but really dad hands him a book twice a year, and Walt publishes it. It’s just not the same.Linda Thrombey
But surely Walt runs the merchandising, adaptations, film and television rights?Benoit Blanc
Of course immediately after this exchange, Linda asks “Are you baiting me detective?” and the questioning ends after telling Benoit she won’t talk shit about her family. What neither Linda, nor myself at first viewing, realized is that she’s already swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker.
Benoit gleans two pieces of information out this small exchange:
- Linda resents Walt for running her father’s publishing company.
- Walt is little more than a figurehead with no real power.
Benoit takes that information and knows exactly where to go next: hard cut to Richard.
Walt doesn’t run shit!– Richard
Richard is more than happy to talk shit about the family and give Benoit all the information he wants on the family business; Harlan ran the company, he just let his son Walt earn a living off of it but had just fired him. Which gives Benoit his first motive for murder, and Benoit immediately follows that up by pursuing Richard’s motive for murder.
The dialogue moves so smoothly it almost defies belief, flowing from one scene to another, the story moving at a steady clip. So often in movies I find the dialogue falls into one of three categories: rapid and choppy like rafting down white rapids, or lost at sea with no rudder, drifting aimlessly with no real purpose. Knives Out falls into that rare third category: a pleasant journey down an idyllic river moving at a steady clip.
Aside from a hilariously low-stakes car chase and an attempted murder at its conclusion, there are no action scenes in Knives Out. It relies entirely on the strength of its dialogue to carry the story, and more importantly, give life to the amazing characters that inhabit the show.
The Characters Are Vivid
Knives Out succeeds in large part because it knows exactly what kind of story it’s telling; this is not a high-stakes drama about a dysfunctional rich family, or an analysis of the depths of human depravity. This is Clue: The Movie, and so many our characters are larger-than-life caricatures. In fact giving us a somber family drama featuring a bunch of broken human beings ruined by their riches, would have absolutely ruined this film. Instead we get a rich tapestry of characters straight off the Clue board.
Harlan Thrombey, the charming old man who loves theatrics, storytelling, and games. His suicide, at first seemingly like the kindly final act of an old man, in truth is yet another one of his games. His selfish desire to end his life with a final flourish serves as the inciting incident of our story.
While I’m sure the majority of his motivation is, in fact, to protect Marta, I also know there was a bit of pride at stake with Harlan as well. If Marta were found to be guilty, the new will he’d just drawn up, would be undone. Harlan would have lost the long game he’d been playing against his entire family, and that was unacceptable.
Benoit Blanc, the gentleman sleuth who speaks like Sherlock Holmes if Arthur Conan Doyle had been born in Louisiana. Hired under mysterious circumstances, he tries to unravel the mystery of Harlan’s death by working with Marta to uncover the truth.
Great Nana, the elder matriarch of the family who has to be 120-years-old at this point who only mutters a few sentences throughout the film. Yet those few sentences, along with her laugh when she finds out her son’s horrific family won’t see a cent of his money, made me fall in love with her.
Then there’s Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s kindly nurse who is just trying to look after her family and doing her best to be a friend to Harlan. Who’s uncomfortable with lying that it literally makes her vomit. Thrown into a situation beyond her control, she’s under constant pressure the entire time. She tries to get Harlan to call 911, multiple times, but is forced to watch Harlan commit suicide instead. She’s questioned by the police, Harlan’s nephew Ransom, and constantly feeling like she’s on the edge of her crime being exposed while also completely unaware that she hasn’t committed one.
The way these characters interact and play off each other is delightful. Ransom smooth talking, mimicking his grandfather’s style, Marta into working with him. Benoit’s strange, and at first glance seemingly deranged, soliloquies about the arc of truth and donuts with donut holes in the middle. The way the Thrombey family is constantly at each other’s throats, knives out as Benoit Blanc put it, until their focus is brought to Marta who has usurped their inheritance.
It all plays together brilliantly, leading us to what is, without a doubt, one of the finest conclusions to a story I’ve ever seen.
Everything is Paid Off
It’s rare in a story that everything is wrapped up in a neat bow; there’s usually a plot hole here, an unresolved storyline there, or a piece of dialogue that never went anywhere. Knives Out is one of those rare gems where literally everything has a pay off, nothing is left behind. At one point Benoit Blanc compares the case to a donut, and the script is written in exactly the same fashion.
Until the final reveal, I had a wide variety of pieces to work with but I still couldn’t put everything together. Right up to the end, I was completely puzzled. Yet in the end, all the clues and evidence are brought into perfect clarity by Benoit’s revelatory monologue. More impressive than merely solving the crime, however, is that everything has a payoff. Things that even I, in my own lack of skill and naivete as to how powerfully satisfying this could be, would have probably left unresolved.
The note Harlan writes to his daughter, that Richard takes for a blank piece of paper, is revealed to be invisible ink. And the last shot we see of him is with a black eye after Linda reads about his infidelity.
The drop of blood on Marta’s shoe, that I assumed would eventually lead to her downfall, Benoit spotted immediately. Informing us as to why he took Marta into his confidence, not only as a source of information, but to keep her close should she turn out to be responsible for the crime.
Even the baseball, the metaphorical representation of Harlan’s will, tossed outside with callous disdain by Richard, eventually returns to its resting spot on Harlan’s desk: signalling his will has finally been done. Capped of beautifully by the final shot of the movie: Marta drinking tea from Harlan’s favorite mug that reads “My house, my rules, my coffee.”
Yet it’s the fact that every piece of dialogue is paid off as well that truly blows my mind. My favorite being this gem from when Harlan is confiding in Marta about Ransom:
Jesus, Ransom. Oh there’s so much of me in that kid: confident, stupid, I dunno, protected, playing life like a game without consequence…tch… until you can’t tell the difference between a stage prop… and a real knife.Harlan Thrombey
I had completely forgotten this piece of dialogue by the end of my first viewing, and was completely delighted when I noticed it the second time around, but it perfectly foreshadows the ending.
That’s Ransom’s last word in the film after realizing he’s tried to kill Marta using a stage prop… instead of a real knife. Perfection.
In fact the entire scene with Marta and Harlan playing Go is filled with best pieces of dialogue in Knives Out, including this one that perfectly captures the very heart of the story:
Why can’t I beat you at this game?-Harlan
Because I’m not playing to beat you, I’m playing to build a beautiful pattern.Marta
Harlan was playing to win. To Harlan, and the entire Thrombey clan, life is a competition; a game to be won at any cost. They’ve have been scheming, plotting, and undermining each other their entire lives, all driven by a selfish desire to “win”. That includes Harlan himself, he spent his life using money as a way to control his family members, and even his final act of cutting them all of from his inheritance is a final twist of the knife. Which is why, when Harlan thinks Marta has accidentally killed him, his immediate response is to begin plotting.
Marta was playing against herself. What Harlan was doing was inconsequential to her own actions, she was challenging herself to make the best pattern she could out of what Harlan was giving her. And winning or losing wasn’t as important to her as enjoying time with her friend Harlan.
The movie starts off with Marta trying to play the game Harlan’s way: outsmart the cops, trust no one, and lie through your teeth to get away with it. That’s not who Marta is though, and it’s not how she wins. She wins by eventually being true to herself, trusting Benoit, and saving a dying woman despite the fact that it meant losing everything Marta cared about.
I want to tell you something very important: you won, not by playing the game Harlan’s way, but yours. You’re a good person.Benoit Blanc
This family… I should help them right?Marta
Well, I have my opinion… but I have a feeling you’ll follow you heart.Benoit Blanc
Marta, despite all the hardship and temptations in her path, never loses who she is. She always follows her heart.
That’s why she won.