Knives Out is a throwback that satirizes life today

Credit to the CBO

2019’s Knives Out is a murder-mystery whirlwind of a movie, written and directed by Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi, Looper). Inspired by the many works of Agatha Christie, Johnson sought to create his own whodunnit story… in his own special Rian Johnson-y way. Namely, by throwing convention and expectations out the window in favor of subversive self-reflection and satire.

This strategy doesn’t always lead to universal applause.

As you may recall with 2017’s The Last Jedi, Johnson employed this to the Star Wars franchise. He turned Luke Skywalker into a grumpy recluse who still hasn’t triumphed over his own dark side. The trifecta of swashbuckling heroes established in J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens all fail in their missions by the end of the film. Yoda sets the last books of the Jedi Order on fire. The big bad Supreme Leader Snoke gets dispatched of quite unceremoniously. All the while, many fans were just interested in space battles, sword fights, and good guys saving the day. While this earned critical praise, it turned off a portion of movie-goers.

Rian Johnson’s inclinations towards subverting expectations are still seen in Knives Out. However, this movie didn’t have a built-in obsessive fanbase. That made the job of twisting the murder-mystery genre relatively harmless, and allows audience members to experience this satire with unbiased eyes. With all this being said, Knives Out is a film about power at it’s center. There are all these elements swirling around: mystery, suspense, comedy, etc. But it all connects to the central theme… almost like a donut.

Let’s take a look at it’s plot. Acclaimed crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) suddenly died in his room on the night of his 85th birthday. It appears to be a suicide, but Private Investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is suspicious. The entire family, played by wonderfully talented actors, all seem to have a vested interest in taking the patriarch’s fortune. Each member is so deeply entrenched in their own sense of entitlement that they don’t even recognize just how privileged they are. Not one of them has gotten to their place in life without the financial support of the rich grandfather.

For example, his daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) owns her own real estate empire, of which she is very proud of. But it is revealed that she got her start from a million dollar loan from Harlan. The son, Walt (Michael Shannon), is the handpicked owner of Harlan’s publishing company, and is not at all responsible for its day-to-day operations. And there’s the daughter-in-law, Joni, who has been living off the family for years since her husband died. There are other members of the Thrombey clan, but for now it should be clear that these are talentless, selfish leeches.

It becomes clear that the only one Harlan ever trusted was his nurse and caretaker, Marta (Ana de Armas). Everyone, with the notable exception of Marta, is played up as over-the-top caricatures. Detective Blanc is a ridiculously confident Southern gentleman who sticks out like a sore thumb. Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson) is an obvious send up of upper-crust conservative Trump supporters who are oblivious to their own racist thoughts. This really eases us into rooting for the everywoman Marta, even with her quirk of vomiting at the mere thought of telling a lie.

The first act prepares us to get ready for a classic whodunnit… until it switches to Marta’s perspective. As it turns out, she believes that she accidently killed Harlan due to a mix up of medications. Harlan, in an act of protecting Marta, makes his death look like a suicide by slitting his own throat. This is all revealed within the first half, and just like Rian Johnson, our idea of a murder-mystery gets flipped around.

Now, we are sympathizing with the accidental killer who is too pure to lie. As she plays Watson to Detective Blanc’s Sherlock, we stop seeing the PI as the protagonist, earnest as his intentions might be. We don’t want Marta to be sent to prison for a mistake, nor do we want her undocumented mother to be deported as a result. Let’s recap the themes here:

1. We have a family of privileged, spoiled rich kids trying to get a piece of their murdered patriarch’s wealth. Turns out that while many of them could’ve murdered him, none of them did. Or so we see right now.

2. We have the perpetrator, who is actually the most moral, kind, and loving person in the movie. She is a poor caretaker who comes from an undocumented immigrant family.

3. We have a Southern detective poking around the estate in the middle of Somewhere, New England.

The, uh, knives really start to come out once Harlan’s will is read. Keep in mind that throughout the first act of the movie, the family’s attitude towards Marta ranged from dismissiveness to polite cordiality. A running joke is that they never bothered to ask where her family comes from (Ecuador? Uruguay? Brazil?) Richard attempts to use her as an example of “good immigrants” who don’t cross the border illegally. Marta is friendly with the other “help”, Fran (Edi Patterson) and Joni’s supposedly woke daughter Meg (Katherine Langford).

This all changes when it is revealed that all of Harlan’s fortune, possessions, properties, and companies were bequeathed to Marta! Like a switch, all of the Thrombeys turn on her. Even Meg tries to convince her to relinquish the inheritance; after all, her tuition money for her fancy college is going to disappear. When a phone call fails, she outs Marta’s mother as undocumented. So much for friends.

The film then turns from a whodunnit into a suspense thriller, just as she is rescued by the gloriously apathetic black sheep of the family, Ransom (Chris Evans). As we later find out, not only is he equally selfish, but he was the secret culprit all along. Ransom (whose name is kind of a big tell) is just another privileged jerk that wants a claim to his “ancestral home”.

When Detective Blanc and Marta work together to expose Ransom, the real point of the movie is made clear: wealth and power should be distributed to the masses, and nepotism is garbage. We do not live in a meritocracy, where those that are hardworking and talented are guaranteed to be rich and successful. For the most part, wealth is largely inherited, and those that benefit tend to believe in their own innate superiority.

It was only through a convoluted series of events that Marta was able to “earn” her fortune. Knives Out does imply, however, that good things eventually come to the good-hearted: every selfless action Marta took led to the arrest of Ransom.

The closing shot is of a young woman of color from an immigrant family looming over the balcony, looking down on the pompous WASPs who used to make the mansion their home.

Finally, we realize that this is a satire of modern life, masked in the tropes of the genre Rian Johnson loves.

JoJo Rabbit: A Oasis In A Comedy Desert (SPOILERS)

Taika Waititi

Director Taika Waititi has established himself in recent years as one of the film industry’s greatest comedy filmmakers. Not that there is much competition these days; he joins a peculiarly small list of successful modern comedy directors. This includes the likes of Edgar Wright, Adam McKay, and Judd Apatow. Perhaps there are a few more to mention, but it seems to me like we should admit something about the film genre nowadays. There isn’t much going on!

It wasn’t even that long ago that audiences were flocking to the theater for profanity-laden movies about screw-ups that finally begin to grow up. To be perfectly frank, it seems like the era of Will Ferrell and Seth Rogan are over. I guess people just don’t find the man child narrative very entertaining anymore.

My hypothesis for this downfall of that era of comedy is that it came some time in 2016. Now, I wonder what happened in that year that would’ve turned audiences off from watching likable doofuses improv lines about their genitals.

THE CONTEXT

Maybe Donald J. Trump.

I know, it sucks that I have to bring this guy up right before diving into a comedy set in Nazi Germany. But I think it’s important to set the context for why JoJo Rabbit was made, especially in the current cultural climate.

After Trump, a tacky rich guy with a reality show, was elected president of the United States in 2016, comedy and satire changed. Here was this gross, sleazy character from a comedy film now controlling America’s military and ICE patrols. Children get locked in cages, neo Nazis march through the streets in support of the Confederacy, and mass shooters are crediting right wing rhetoric for their actions.

Turns out Vince Vaughn finding out he has to sit through four Christmases isn’t going to be entertaining enough to lighten the mood.

Audiences are quickly becoming more serious, more grim, more politically minded in a age of increased authoritarianism. Unfortunately, it seems most comedians and comedic filmmakers are floundering at the changing times.

Will Ferrell’s last big film, Holmes and Watson, was garbage. It reeked of man-child antics… and we’re kind of experiencing the consequences of that now. Judd Apatow hasn’t directed a major comedy since 2015’s Trainwreck. The Seth Rogen/James Franco team was shattered after the #MeToo Movement exposed some dark secrets on Franco’s part.

Both Edgar Wright and Adam McKay have managed to survive in today’s environment. Keep in mind, however, that Wright’s Baby Driver was an action film. And McKay’s Vice was more of a drama.

So, why is it that Taika Waititi’s movies are funnier to me than anything in the last five years? Why does this year’s JoJo Rabbit work so well in this day and age?

THE SETTING

So, let’s take a look at JoJo Rabbit’s setting, as that is as important to this film’s comedy as it’s actors and writers.

Picture this: it’s the last few months of World War Two in Nazi Germany. Any objective observer can see that the regime is on it’s last legs. Some Germans see the writing on the wall, and are waiting for the conflict to finally end. Others are actively undermining the Nazis by spreading literature and hiding Jewish families. And then there are the fanatics… the Germans who are so deluded about their future that they couldn’t believed that Adolph Hitler would shoot himself in the head.

This self destructing world of tragedy and sadness apparently had some hilarious moments in it. The protagonist, JoJo (played by Roman Griffin Davis) is a little Hitler Youth member that is fully indoctrinated into the Reich’s propaganda.

JoJo is hilariously misinformed about a great many things, from his own sense of superiority to the superstitions about Jews. His imaginary friend, played by Waititi, is Adolph Hitler himself. Hitler is played mostly as a sort of goofy sidekick/mirror, reflecting all the thoughts going on in JoJo’s mind.

The film starts at Youth Camp, where the new generation of Nazi soldiers are raised. It then shifts to his home life with his mother, played by Marvel alum Scarlett Johanssen. The main conflict of the film begins when JoJo discovers that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls.

After being exposed to his supposed enemy for an extended length of time, he learns that she’s just a human being, and imaginary Hitler is wrong (surprise!). The last beats of the film are more dramatic than funny, as it goes from the death of JoJo’s mother to the climactic last battle versus the Allies. And the two kids emerge from the wreckage dancing together in the street.

THE MESSAGE

The message goes deeper than, “Jews are actually just regular people”. The film is really about questioning your beliefs. It’s marketed as an “anti-hate satire”, but I think that description is a bit too simplistic.

Towards the start of the film, JoJo get into a brutal accident that hinders him from joining the army. He feels like a monstrous outcast, even if the lasting scars aren’t as ugly as he imagines. By that same token, he views Jews as monstrous outcasts as well. It’s not an overt thread, thankfully, but you can connect JoJo’s feelings of being different from the other Germans meld into a shared commonality with Elsa as outsiders.

Obviously, Elsa has it much worse, but it’s this situation that forces the two together. Eventually, JoJo starts to interact with her… at first as an ‘interrogation” for his planned expose on Jews. This eventually leads to regular conversations. Which leads to a friendship, which JoJo seems to not even realize. And, of course, he falls in love.

The film’s message is that hate, even deep-seated hate that’s been indoctrinated since childhood, can be undone through friendship and love. Towards the end of the movie, JoJo is caught up in a chaotic battle between the Nazis and America. He would have likely died had it not been for the growth of a conscience. He rejects the Nazis, and kicks imaginary Hitler out the window, Captain America style!

There’s a term for this: deprogramming. It is what happened to Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the hateful, cultish Westboro Baptist Church. She was born into a close-knit family that built a new religious sect on extreme acts of bigotry and anger, doing things from protesting military funerals to spreading anti-gay /anti-Jewish hate. They would make signs that read, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and say things like, “Jews are the real Nazis”.

Megan didn’t know any better… it was something her father, mother and grandfather believed in. It wasn’t until she was exposed to Twitter, where she could have conversations with people outside the Westboro Baptist Church. The man that convinced her to leave the Church eventually became her husband, who happens to own a blog entitled Jewlicious.

Today, Megan recently released a book detailing her experiences and eventually falling out with her family.

As you can see, this isn’t a hollow message lazily slapped on a goofy comedy. This is an example of communication with people you disagree with actually working.

THE LESSON

This is a lesson for comedy filmmakers on how to make a successful comedic movie nowadays.

While the film has slapstick, it isn’t mindless physical comedy.

While the film has some dramatic moments, it’s not a dreary drama.

While it has a message, it isn’t beating the audience over the head with it.

Taika Waititi is seemingly an expert in balancing humor with serious material, and that happens to be what, in my opinion, modern audiences are waiting for.