Writer and director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Last Jedi) returns with the peppy and hilarious murder mystery Knives Out. Like all his work, this takes a few genre conventions and then twists them on its head unexpectedly, sometimes doing exactly what a murder mystery would do and then swerving. It is sold as a huge ensemble yet the movie is basically about one character constantly running around as their world threatens to crumble. This will still deliver twists, quips, and craziness that one wants in a mystery movie but do it in an unexpected but still familiarly satisfying way.
Literary giant and multi–millionaire Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) has died under mysterious circumstances, leading an unknown party to hire the famed detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). There is a plethora of suspects in Thrombey’s greedy, squabbling family, like his sons Walt (Michael Shannon) and Richard (Don Johnson) or their similarly greedy children like the absentee Ransom (Chris Evans) or the liberal college student Meg (Katherine Langford), and there’s also the shifty Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the spacey Joni (Toni Colette). Unsurprisingly, each of them has a motive and Blanc seeks the help of Harlan’s housekeeper and only friend, Marta (Ana de Armas), to solve the case. But the Thrombey estate walls hides secrets and behind each reveal lies another twist as to who, if anyone, was the murderer.
This is a giant, sprawling cast filled with character actors who add flair. Shannon and Johnson as the two sons bounce between sympathetic and hateful and each one gets in a great moment. Langford’s Meg is a super hippie liberal student but slowly reveals unexpected sides while Curtis and Colette have smaller roles but make a distinct impression. Knives Out also takes some very cathartic pot–shots at Alt Right Nazi punks with a constantly on his phone teenager (Jaden Martell) who always says something offensive but is still constantly belittled by everyone else. Frank Oz pops up as the guy reading Harlan’s will and he has some great, quizzical line deliveries has he has to lay out the truth to this gaggle of crazy people.
But, honestly, everyone else is sort of a bit player when the core trio is really Marta, Ransom and Blanc. For the first 30 minutes it really a sprawling whodunnit ensemble as all the characters are introduced and there are fun background stories about their relationship to Harlan, but de Armas’ Marta is basically the lead once a few key revelations are made. Ana de Armas has a lot of supporting roles over the years, usually as a girlfriend (or even the heartbreaking holo–girlfriend in Blade Runner 2049) but Knives Out sort of turns out to be about her and she puts in a great lead performance. Marta has a funny quirk where if she tells a lie she starts vomiting; it’s odd, weird, and ultimately a huge plot point.
Not arriving until about halfway through the film is Evans’ Ransom and his introductory scene succinctly labels him as an unrepentant jerk which is what makes some of his later emotional turns that much more unexpected. Craig’s Blanc starts off as a whip smart investigator but as the movie goes on, he maybe isn’t as competent as he seems. Still, eventually he delivers an awesome requisite accusing parlor climatic sequence that is mandatory in a murder mystery. Craig is great as Blanc, subverting his Bond persona to play a bit of a dopey guy but with some flashes of brilliance.
The script has some fantastic zingers as characters brutally verbally rip into each other. One of the movie’s best quips is when a character rants about their “ancestral home” and Blanc shuts it down by saying Harlan bought it in the ‘80s. The script has some great flips like where one character steadfastly refuses to rat out on someone and then it cuts to another character gleefully ratting out that person. The mystery of Harlan’s demise gets some surprisingly welcome reversals as the story progresses. The murder mystery genre is at the forefront at the beginning, gets pushed to the back, and then suddenly becomes relevant again.
Rain Johnson is deft at flipping things tonally going from wacky to suspenseful to honest and emotionally truthful. There are a lot of details, but nothing is wasted as everything eventually has a payoff. There are some great sequences throughout, like a suspenseful extended flashback to what Harlan was doing on the night he died that follows characters through what happens and features some very funny random gags. The movie looks spectacular as Johnson centres most of the movie’s action in a singular location but still finding ways to make it look different. Sometimes the camera movement can seem playful and zippy and other times it knows when to slow down and extend a feeling of dread.
There is a lot going on in Knives Out but it is never pointless as even the most random digressions are there for a reason. It has a quirky vibe with some zinging social commentary as it is clearly affectionate for the murder mystery genre even as it tweaks the conventions, but the core emotional story resonates. This is a murder mystery with a twisted tone that lands perfectly by the end, which makes the ride so very awesome. V
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas
and Jamie Lee Curtis