I find one of the hardest parts of writing is matching character and motive. The temptation is to jury-rig characters' motives to orchestrate a sequence of events I want. It's something Rian Johnson struggles with as well, as I've concluded after watching Knives Out.
- If you think you're going to die because your nurse accidentally injected a fatal amount of morphine in you, and you want to make sure she isn't prosecuted for murder after you die, what do you do? Do you tell everyone in the house what happened and bid your family a tearful farewell? Do you write a short letter explaining the honest mistake and sign it? Neither of those, actually. You slit your own throat to make it look like suicide, instruct the panic-stricken nurse to manufacture an iffy alibi, and hope the coroner doesn't notice the morphine in your system.
- If you're plan to frame your granddad's nurse for murdering your granddad goes awry when the police conclude it's a suicide, what do you do? Do you ask the police if your granddad was under the influence of mind-altering drugs, knowing the bloodwork will put suspicion on the nurse? No. You anonymously hire a private detective who may find anything under the Sun, which may or may not include the bloodwork. When your granddad's housekeeper tries to blackmail you, what do you do? Do you rough her up until she tells you everything she knows, then kill her? No. You leave her to die slowly so she can tell anyone who finds her that you're the killer.
- If you're a cop investigating a suspicious death of an old man with an inheritance his family stands to benefit from, what do you do? Do you look at the bloodwork to see if he was under the influence? Do you take the nurse's medical bag into evidence? Do you review all available security footage of the estate to rule out foul play? Do you examine the study where the supposed suicide took place for suspicious entry? Nope. You do none of those things.
- If you're a private detective who's brought in by an anonymous client to find something the cops haven't found surrounding a suspicious suicide, what do you do? Do you conduct an immediate review of the scene and of the chain of custody of the evidence? Do you question potential suspects when they conveniently turn up at other crime scenes and subsequently evade the police? No. According to Rian Johnson, you carelessly disregard chain of custody and let potential suspects run nondescript errands minutes after leading police on a chase while you wait in the car. Good job.
- Last, but least, if you're a housekeeper whose boss just killed himself, and you spot his grandson a week later rummaging through the nurse's medical bag in the study, what do you do? Do you ask him what he's doing? Do you tell the police and let them sort it out? Of course not! Here's what you do: You assume the grandson poisoned your boss and proceed to blackmail him; you ask your cousin who works for the coroner to give you access to your boss's bloodwork; you then mail a photocopy of only the header of the bloodwork to the grandson and demand a secret meeting; and at the meeting with the person you suspect of murder, you bring no friends and nothing to defend yourself with. Well played.
It's not that the characters are stupid. It's that their motives for acting make no sense. Because Rian Johnson needed the movie to happen, he jury-rigged the characters' motives.
Farce may be the most difficult type of movie to execute because it's wink-at-the-audience funny as well as internally consistent in the genre its poking fun at. Hot Fuzz, Team America: World Police, and Tropic Thunder are excellent farces. Knives Out is a bottom-tier farce because of its baffling plot problems. The actors elevate the poor writing to mere mediocrity. The profane treatment of family is not a point in its favor.
Due to the 2020 demise of tentpole movies, a sequel to Knives Out, which was produced for a mere $40 million, seems inevitable. Don't see it. Read a book instead. Like mine! If you like hard sci-fi, check out Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.
As always, let me know what you think in the comments. I'll respond as soon as I can.