When I saw Knives Out at an early screening several weeks ago, there was a taped statement from its director, Rian Johnson, before it began. Please, Johnson implored the audience, whatever you do, don’t spoil the “who” in my movie’s whodunit.
I was unmoved by his appeal; more than that, I was peeved. Everywhere you turn these days, there are wheedling statements and social media campaigns warning critics and blabbermouths not to “spoil” the sanctity of a movie with even the most opaque of plot summaries. Directors weighing in have only added blood to this frothing, brainless, “NO SPOILERS” feeding frenzy. It is one thing for critics to have the decency not to publish a trollish headline like “[Redacted] kills Christopher Plummer’s character in Knives Out,” but it is a whole other thing to lecture critics about spoilers before the movie even begins.
But here’s the weirdest part: 130 minutes later, I was in full agreement with Johnson. The struggle was finished. I had won the victory over myself. I loved #NoSpoilers.
Fair warning, this is the part where I summarize the movie while simultaneously telling you nothing about it. Knives Out is a classic whodunit, beginning with a murder and ending with the reveal of Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick (calm down, that isn’t a spoiler either). When Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a wealthy and eccentric patriarch, suddenly dies — it appears at first to be suicide — all of his family members seem to have a motive for potentially wanting him dead. It is up to Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) and Harlan’s devoted live-in nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who is afflicted by the inability to lie, to get to the bottom of his murder.
Now let me put this plainly: You only really need to see Knives Out once. This isn’t a knock on the movie! It has a whip-smart script, it crackles with topical social commentary, it’s hilarious — as in, tears-in-my-eyes, gasping-for-breath funny. But the whodunit genre is called such because it’s about getting from Point A (murder) to Point B (“…and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”), all the while inviting the audience or reader to participate in putting the clues together themselves. That’s not to say this can’t be artfully done — some of the greatest English-language literature comes from this tradition — but there is nothing like that first time through the story, when everyone is still a suspect.
As such, any sort of “spoilers” for Knives Out would gut the movie of its entire purpose for existing. I barely want to say more about it than I’ve already said: Like most murder mysteries, Knives Out ping-pongs through different theories and red herrings, so once you think you’ve seized on the murderer, he or she then slips again out of your hands.
The problem is, modern spoiler culture treats every movie like it is Knives Out. “The definition of ‘spoiler’ has expanded so much in recent years that it encompasses just about any information about a piece of pop culture,” wrote Deadspin’s Katharine Trendacosta back when people were losing their minds over anyone saying remotely anything about Avengers: Endgame. For example, “If the headline vaguely states that it’s about a ‘twist,’ that is a spoiler. Because now you know there is a twist.” This has been taken to truly preposterous degrees: Endgame‘s directors, the Russo Brothers, wouldn’t even let their own actors know who they were interacting with in certain scenes, lest something get “leaked.”
Most critics, including both Trendacosta and myself, would argue that if loose lips truly had the ability to sink a movie, then the movie wasn’t very good to begin with. Great art ought to have merits beyond plot twists; you can watch Twin Peaks knowing who killed Laura Palmer, and it doesn’t diminish it as one of the greatest television shows ever. Or take David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl, which has about as many ridiculous twists as you can stuff in 149 minutes, but its source material was a bestselling book; many audiences already knew how the story would end before the movie began. Psychology professor Nicholas Christenfeld frames it the other way to Esquire: “When you watch Hamlet, is it ruined if you know he dies? You’d have to be an idiot going to a Shakespeare play and not knowing the ending.”
And let’s face it, Agatha Christie wasn’t exactly out there writing prologues begging readers not to reveal the murderer on the Orient Express. The rise of today’s out-of-control spoiler culture can be traced to 2005, when there was a concerted effort by trolls to “ruin” Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by revealing that Snape kills Dumbledore before anyone but speed-readers had a chance to get to that part in the novel. In the ensuing years, though, the crackdown on spoilers overcorrected itself, with creators promoting hashtags like #KeepTheSecrets and #DontBeWormtail (a reference to a traitorous character in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) or #DontSpoilTheEndgame — as if there was anything, really, to even spoil, or that speaking about a movie in specifics before some unspecified date makes you a bad fan.
New #knivesout trailer ahoy! As always… it doesn’t spoil anything BUT it shows plenty of new moments that are best experienced for the first time in the movie. If you’re already in for opening night, I recommend coming in clean! With that having been said…
— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) September 18, 2019
All of these examples, though, are shows and movies that operate, at least in theory, on more than just solving a murder. Even Twin Peaks, which was literally promoted with the tagline “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”, unveils its killer midway through season two; Gone Girl likewise is about a whole lot more than just a missing wife. This difference is key: Murder stories are everywhere — the defining genre of the 2010s, even — but whodunits are out of fashion and rare. It’s actually somewhat ironic; for living in an era so consumed by how a story will end that people will assault each other over spoilers, we rarely get to enjoy media that is actually deserving of such obsessive protection over plot details.
Knives Out serves as a perfect foil to out-of-control spoiler culture, a reminder of what a movie looks like when it is actually important to let others experience it on their own. But I was wrong; that doesn’t make Knives Out any less artful or entertaining. Instead, it is a reminder of the only time #NoSpoilers is actually justified — you know, when Colonel Mustard has murdered someone in the library with the candlestick.
But you didn’t hear it from me.
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