The Heart Knows What the Heart Knows: “Knives Out”

In the last couple of decades, there’s been more and  more research done on “the gut brain” and “the heart brain”–on the extensive neural networks surrounding the stomach and the heart that not only communicate important information to the brain, but seem able to function independently of it. People’s “gut reactions” have been shown to occur before the brain can form an idea, while the heart is a “highly complex, self-organized information processing center,” according to the HeartMath Institute.

It turns out that our intuitive abilities–our gut reactions and our heartfelt responses–are not just faster but more accurate than our reason. We know things before we even know, in our minds, what we know.

In “Knives Out,” writer-director Rian Johnson contrasts characters who rely on their thinking/plotting brains against two characters who trust their instincts and intuition. First we have Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, in top form), a best-selling writer of detective novels known for his intricate plots, and his caretaker/nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).  Marta often beats Harlan at their nightly game of Go, which baffles him, because she doesn’t use logic when she plays; as she says to him, “I don’t play to win, I try to create pretty patterns.” She plays from the heart, and somehow, it’s more effective.

When the plot to kill Harlan and frame Marta for his death is set in motion, Harlan immediately recognizes what is going on and orchestrates a counterplot to protect her, using all his skills honed in years of writing–skills based on logic and reason.

The second pairing is between a private detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, completely inhabiting the role–I didn’t think “Bond” even once), and the villain of the piece. No Sherlock Holmes relentlessly analyzing every tiny clue, Benoit looks for patterns as Marta does. He sees the tiny clues, all right, but waits to see how they fit into the pattern. He also looks at people and trusts his gut instincts about them. Benoit sees all the clues pointing to Marta’s guilt, but he knows she is no killer, for she has “a kind heart.” (Benoit does too; he is nice to old ladies and dogs.)

This is a palimpsest of a movie, layer upon layer concealing the underlying truth. As each layer is removed, the story shifts slightly, bringing us closer to seeing the face of the villain. At the same time, we start to see how Marta, acting from the heart and out of intuition, has foiled or complicated the plots set in motion by both the villain and by Harlan.  Marta knows something is wrong with Harlan’s plot. Eventually her heart drives her to confess what she thinks happened.

She confesses three times, to different people. When she confesses to Benoit, he begins to see the pattern. Benoit’s process is revealed in a hilarious monologue about donut holes inside of donut holes (a metaphor that baffles most of the people in the room). He intuits that something essential to the total pattern is still missing, but he can’t yet guess what it is.

In an early scene, Harlan deliberately upsets the Go board, scattering all the pieces. At the climax of the movie, having finally received the last piece of the puzzle, Benoit takes all the clues and shakes them up, letting them fall into the pattern he knew was there all along.

As the villain is led off to jail, Marta asks Benoit what she should do next. Benoit shakes his head. “I have my opinion,” he tells her, “but I suspect you will follow your heart.” And smiles.

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