Movies to Watch Before Knives Out

(Welcome to Knives In, a series about the movies to watch before Rian Johnson’s Knives Out arrives in theaters.)

Put on your murder-solving hat, because /Film has given me jurisdiction to dive deep into one film a day in preparation for the release of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which hits theaters next week. Each film relates to Johnson’s “whodunit” in its own unique way, and each picture should hopefully be viewed prior to patrons watching the new movie on the big screen.

Today, we’ll be discussing the 2014 film Gone Girl, and how the movie is a perfect companion piece to Johnson’s modern day murder mystery.

If Agatha Christie penned a new novel in today’s modern political climate, it might look something like Gone Girl. Originally authored by Gillian Flynn before she translated it to the big screen for director David Fincher, this twisted crime thriller features a lead who peddles duplicity so casually, her composure camouflages to concede to whomever is in currently in the room. This type of put on persona and consistent unreliable narrator is the perfect companion piece for Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, and the perfect film to watch in order to prep for the Thrombey family on Thanksgiving day.

(Worry not: it’s not a spoiler to know that Knives Out contains unreliable narrators, as the movie tips its hand in the opening scenes to this detail and allows you to play along.)

Amazing Amy is not like them, but she can pretend. Played by the incendiary Rosamund Pike, Amy Dunne is a moonshot, a dreadnought, one of those, she only comes around once-in-a-lifetime kind of girls – at least, that’s the appearance she projects on the surface. That’s the image that everyone is left with after Amy goes missing and her husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), is left behind to pick up the pieces and withstand the jail sentence.

The truth is, Amy has a tendency to act like ‘the cool girl’, as she likes to call it. “Cool girl is hot. Cool girl is game. Cool girl is fun. Cool girl never gets angry at her man” Amy narrates while images of her driving away from her old life flood the screen. Eating frozen pizza and remaining a size two. Watching Adam Sandler movies while drinking canned beer. This is the charade that Amy touted for her better half back when he was still worthy of his trophy husband status. Now, when Nick isn’t busy sitting around in his boxers, eating leftover takeout and playing video games, he’s off having an affair with a younger, bouncier cool girl. This is not the man Amy agreed to marry, and he is not going to get away with it.

The daughter of two psychologists, Amy knows how to warp perception to her advantage, using a person’s own knee-jerk stereotyping against them. It’s a trick that comes in handy when you need to convince the entire world that your lying, cheating husband killed his pregnant wife. Fresh blood for the tragedy vampires, new scoops for the media locusts waiting just outside the door.

In a way, you can’t blame Amy for growing up into the conniving sociopath who frames her husband for murder. Her evolution of vitriol can be traced back to her earliest days, while she was still living under the same roof as Rand and Marybeth Elliott (David Clennon and Lisa Banes), who treated her as both their project and their prodigy. When she was still a little girl, Amy’s parents created a best selling book called ‘Amazing Amy’, modeled after their daughter, with a few improvements thrown in here and there. Soon, the book grew into a popular series, and Amy was always one step behind her doppelgänger. Amy was cut from the volleyball team freshmen year, but her hand-drawn foil made varsity. Mr. and Mrs. Elliott did not deem their actual daughter fit to take care of a pet, but their cartoon child got a dog because it made her character more relatable. Amazing Amy even beat her corporeal counterpart to the altar, as a scene from the film shows Marybeth disappointed in her real daughter Amy once again, this time for not wearing white to her wedding themed book launch party. Any person, no matter how sane at the start, might begin to feel the tethers of reality coming undone as the years drone on and the only authority figures you know constantly remind you that your ambitions are fruitless, your accolades dull and unworthy.

Both Gone Girl and Knives Out are lousy with unreliable narrators and studied effervescence, sharing an emphasis on appearances. In Rian Johnson’s latest, a private detective investigates the death of a patriarch while his combative family hash out their father’s will. Hungry for inheritance, each member of the Thrombey family does their best to look calm and formidable, moving economically while Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) contemplate foul play. It is partially an act to look good in the eyes of the law, and partially a face that this crazy rich clan has donned their entire lives, for the press, for the papers, and mostly, for their father’s fans. A self-made millionaire, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has built himself into one of the best selling mystery writers of all time. Around thirty languages and over eighty million copies sold, it’s safe to say that Thrombey is somewhat of a celebrity, and the effect that his fame and fortune have had on his family cannot be overstated.

Amazing Amy and the Thrombey children were given personas before they were old enough to pick personas for themselves. It’s the price you pay when you grow up in the spotlight, the need to always be ‘on’, the expectation of perfection, the highly public missteps, the altered reality. It’s the reason why Shia LeBeouf can’t enjoy ice cream when he’s not faking it on a set. This escapism narrative is so deeply woven into the psyche of child starlets that taking off their mask now, even for a second, would be just as difficult for them as it would be for most everyday people to put one on.

Gone Girl is the perverse wish fulfillment fantasy that Ari Aster wishes he could make. A narcissist hell-bent on forcing her hubby to carry on the same charade as his mentally unstable significant other, Amy showcases a plethora of performances in order to get what she wants. First, she’s the cool girl Nick Dunne falls in love with, then, she’s the mousy Ozark mountain range runaway, gobbling down greasy burgers while her fake spectacles help her Clark Kent her way across the country. Next, she’s the manic pixie stepford wife who yearns to hear Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris) discuss Proust in French. For his cameras, however, she’s the kidnapped damsel, desperate to claw her way out of his confinement. Finally, she’s the rescued suburban girl, the one who might have started out a child star, but after all her troubles, just wants to be a mother to Nick’s child.

Mad as a hatter, Amazing Amy would fit in nicely in the Rian Johnson’s world, for in the end, both Knives Out and Gone Girl are modern day whodunits, filled to the brim with characters leading the audience astray, subverting expectations, and keeping the viewer guessing until the very last frame.

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