Starring Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette, this highly amusing whodunit is like Agatha Christie for modern-day America.
November 28, 2019
Sharp, shiny and unafraid to leave a mark, Knives Out sticks a blade into the murder-mystery genre, gives it a good twist and has plenty of fun. The first post-Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi flick from writer/director Rian Johnson, who returns to the pulpier terrain of Brick and Looper, this movie knows how to slice through the familiar, toy with trusty tropes, and create a gloriously smart, subversive and entertaining whodunit. The setup: a death in a wealthy family. The deceased: a crime author who wrote books about this kind of scenario. Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) expires after his 85th birthday party, when all of his relatives happen to be in his remote mansion. And yes, as a cop (Lakeith Stanfield), trooper (Noah Segan) and private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) discover, everyone has a motive — even if the old man's passing looks like a suicide.
Initially framed via interviews with the Thrombeys, Knives Out interrogates the possible culprits. Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) became a real estate mogul without her dad's help, keeps her Trump-sympathising husband Richard (Don Johnson) in check and has an arrogant son, Ransom (Chris Evans), who's the picture of privilege and entitlement. Her brother Walt (Michael Shannon) is Harlan's publisher and has his own right-wing problem child (Jaeden Martell), while sister-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is a lifestyle guru with a college-aged kid (Katherine Langford) hanging on grandpa's purse strings. As his closest confidante, Harlan's nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) also fields the detectives' enquiries. She tries not to vomit, too — a reflex whenever she tells a lie. As he makes clear in his slow southern drawl, Blanc is very intrigued by that physical reaction.
It's a narrative that Agatha Christie could've penned a century ago, when she started writing Hercule Poirot stories. And yet, unlike the current revivals of the author's work — 2017's Murder on the Orient Express and next year's Death on the Nile — Johnson isn't peering backwards. Knives Out is steeped in America's present socio-political climate, and directs its most cutting commentary at folks filled with bluster but possessing little in the way of good ol'-fashioned human decency. It's not by accident that Marta, a Latin immigrant from a South American country that none of the Thrombeys bothers to remember, sits at the centre of this expertly executed film. Or, that she's the only one who isn't frothing over Harlan's money. Sometimes Johnson's scathing statements fall on the obvious side, but hey, a blunt knife can still cause considerable damage.
Mostly, Knives Out is sleek, slinky and fascinated with its many secrets, which have been pieced together with precision. For viewers eager to sleuth themselves, it isn't overly difficult to start sniffing in the right direction — but the joys of seeing the plot spill open go far beyond simply discovering who did what among the rogue's gallery of shifty suspects. And anyway, another game is afoot, as Blanc keeps telling his offsiders (in a nod to Sherlock Holmes, of course). The private eye doesn't know who hired him, or why, and he's as obsessed with that question as he is with the Thrombey clan's petty yet incessant sniping.
Oh, the sniping. One of the keys to Knives Out's genre is how quickly it always strips its players down to their base instincts and motives, which this nifty picture does extremely well. Not every character gains quite enough flesh over the top, but the entire cast is gleefully happy going along for the ride. That Craig, de Armas and Evans fare best is really just a matter of screen time, although all three earn the added attention. As loose as he often is whenever he ditches Bond's grim seriousness (as seen in heist caper Logan Lucky), Craig is having a ball — while de Armas proves sensitive but savvy, and Evans leaves Captain America's wholesomeness far, far behind.
Johnson hasn't overlooked two other crucial elements of ace whodunits, thankfully. All those double-crosses, puzzles and arguments are great, but truly excellent murder-mysteries also engage the eyes and serve up a rollicking good time. With his now five-time cinematographer Steve Yedlin, the filmmaker easily takes care of the first aspect while his movie roves around Harlan's labyrinthine home (kudos to the production design team, too). As for the second part of the equation, that stems from the director's light but biting handling of his own material — and his knack for a hearty laugh. Some murder-mysteries try but fail, as Netflix's weak Adam Sandler vehicle Murder Mystery demonstrated earlier this year. Some find their nutty niche and prosper, as 80s cult classic Clue has over the years. It's a testament to Knives Out that it achieves everything it should, hits every target and firmly feels like its own highly enjoyable film.