The type of movie director/writer Rian Johnson delivers can seem as challenging as providing a clever murder mystery. Knives Out is a whodunnit with a lot of cleverness on its mind, and once again finds Johnson tackling a new genre and figuring out ways to deconstruct it. Much like his other films, the key to its success is how Johnson balances examining the pieces of said genre, while still delivering what audiences came to see. Whether it’s a heist, space and lightsaber battles, time travel craziness, or, in this case, a twisted murder plot, Johnson continues to find the right ways to lean into interesting areas of a story. It helps that the results are quite entertaining.
Knives Out set its own bar high from the start, as the story deals with the death of the very wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (played by a lively Christopher Plummer), an author who has specialized in elaborate plots. Can this film outdo a man who has generated millions of dollars in book sales? Perhaps someone in the Thrombey family believes so. With a terrific ensemble cast serving as the various relatives doubling as possible suspects in what was initially ruled as a suicide, it will take the efforts of a detective (Lakeith Stanfield) and, more importantly, a private investigator (Daniel Craig), to learn the truth.
While the film gets to have a lot of fun with the various cast members, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, and Jaeden Martell, a few stand out. Ana de Armas plays Marta, Harlan’s caretaker, and the one person Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc has the most interest in, as she’s an outsider. Marta may or may not know more than she’s letting on, while Blanc grows more emotionally invested in the case, the more he learns about it. There’s also Chris Evans (having a grand ol’ time) as Harlan’s grandson, Ransom, the black sheep of the family who has the largest of the supporting roles, thanks to a similar outsider status, which finds him relating to Marta.
The first half of the film is all about setting up the characters, and the escalating story turns bound to unfold after. Craig is delightful as Blanc, relishing the chance to deliver another southern accent (side note: Logan Lucky is just as terrific as this film), and serving as interrogator (along with Stanfield), as a means to have the audience understand who’s who. The various one-on-ones are not only great in providing each actor their moment to shine, but also signal how modern the film has chosen to be. Between Toni Collette’s station in life as a lifestyle guru/influencer and Don Johnson’s clear political preferences, the characters may be in a throwback mystery, but they very much exist in 2019.
This allows Knives Out to have a relevance factor enhancing the plot as far as how these characters are connected, and what to consider as far as the stakes are concerned. Marta, in particular, must balance how to deal with a suspicious Blanc, given her immigrant status, something the Thrombey family makes sure to bring up at any occasion. The modern qualities also inform the dialogue, which risks dating the film, but still allows the characters to be as sharp and quick-witted as needed in moments where the various family members trade harsh barbs.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson brings in plenty of cinematic knowledge to the look and feel of this film and its story. Relying on influences such as Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, and Robert Altman, among others, Knives Out is full of valuable insight into the world of murder mysteries, working as the perfect gateway for film fans wanting to learn more. With the help of his regular collaborators, cinematographer Steve Yedlin, editor Bob Ducsay, and composer Nathan Johnson, Johnson is not only able to write a very involved film but create a wonderful work of movie construction.
For all of the ingenious plotting, it’s all the more rewarding to see the exceptional level of detail in the costume and production design. There’s a certain rhythm to all of Johnson’s films, and Knives Out is no different. The clues are all over this film, but it’s the presentation that is bound to make it a joy to rewatch, let alone the solid performances provided by all. That’s the thing, the staging is deliberate, and various reveals all add up, but the character-focused comedy coming out of all of this gives the film staying power.
Moreover, by assuring the audience they will be having fun with this cast, the thrilling aspects of learning more details about the mystery let Johnson have fun in subverting expectations. I have my own issues here and there regarding how certain things play out, but much of that comes in hindsight. In the moment, Knives Out is a terrific time at the theater, where so much joy comes from seeing a mix of veteran and younger actors play together as a dysfunctional family unit.
Speaking of which, the ensemble cast does a play a bunch of scoundrels, which only adds to the idiosyncratic nature of the film. No character is unlikable, as every performer is having way too much fun with their role (note how Shannon throttles his Cane or the perfectly deadpan reactions of Curtis). Still, the audience will find themselves deeply invested in all of their actions. It only helps to have them dressed in colorful attire, packed into rooms full of items, further signaling their wealth and how they hold it above everything.
To say more would come at a risk of taking away the element of surprise (and there are many), as the film capitalizes on what many look forward to when entering into a murder mystery. Fortunately, Johnson is a clever enough filmmaker to find all the ways to get around certain tropes in a devious manner, while hitting all the right crowd-pleasing notes. Thanks to a terrific ensemble cast, irreverent sensibilities, and a push for incorporating the modern world, Knives Out is more than a quirky thriller with an eye towards the past. The movie is a smartly assembled whodunnit, and once I had done seen it, I could only hope to get more of it.