Hitchcock said you surprise your audience when a bomb under the table explodes at the end of a scene. He said you hold them in suspense by telling the audience there is a bomb under the table, without any of the characters knowing it's there. With surprise, the audience is shocked only by that explosion, which came out of nowhere. With suspense, the audience is dragged in, sitting at the edge of their seats, waiting for somebody, anybody, to look under that tablecloth and see that bomb ticking down.
Knives Out works as a mystery on two different levels. The more basic level is the film's general whodunnit, with Daniel Craig whipping out his best Southern drawl as super detective, Benoit Blanc. But on a higher level is Rian Johnson, the film's director and writer, who is constantly taking the audience deeper and deeper into this intricate plot. Every time you think Johnson has written himself into a corner, he pulls out the rug from underneath you, pivoting the entire movie into a new direction. I spent most of the movie not wondering what Benoit would do next, but trying to figure out how Johnson was going to make his way out of this one.
And each time he does. Because Johnson knows how to blend surprise and suspense. There's a delicate balance between the unpredictable and the predictable. Most of the time when you think you've got it all figured out, you're one step short. Just as Benoit Blanc is trying to uncover the murder of Harlan Trombly, we as an audience are trying to figure out Johnson's next move.
But it's not only engaging. It's incredibly entertaining. Every performer is having an incredible time, with the snarling Chris Evans, the frigid Jamie Lee Curtis, and the seething Michael Shannon all putting in performances that I could have watched forever. And that's not even including Ana de Armas, who brings deep empathy and sharp humour to her role as Marta, Harlan's caregiver. In a 5 minute scene with Harlan Trombly, played by a very charming Christopher Plummer, we become endeared to their friendship in ways that other movies fail to do over an entire 2 hour runtime.
It's this sense of play that makes Knives Out a joy to watch. The actors are having a good time, embodying these idiosyncratic characters. The costume team is in full-force, arranging the cast in an incredible array of colours and styles, each capturing the characters' essence. And then there's the greatest game of all: Johnson's game, the one where we're the only players, watching our game-master arrange a complex game of Clue and while we try to pick up the rules as we move along. It's for this reason that as the credits rolled on Knives Out, I already found myself thinking, "I can't wait to play this again."