There’s been a lot of trash tossed around on writer/director Rian Johnson since his Star Wars film hit theaters in 2017. It’s wonderful that audiences feel such ownership for a film series, but there comes a point where the community becomes toxic. Truly and completely out of their minds toxic. It became so much for several of the cast members that they left social media. The Last Jedi may not have been the film they’d wanted, but Johnson delivered one of the most original stories in the Skywalker Saga since The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Johnson’s work reinvigorated the long-running series with new energy, ideas, and direction. With no amount of surprise, Johnson’s doing it again with his murder-mystery Knives Out. This time, instead of exploring the relationship between heroism and failure via space opera, Johnson flays layer after layer of socio-political intrigue as he twists the knife — literal and figuratively — via an old school Jessica Fletcher-esque whodunit. Frankly, Knives Out is quite possibly the most fun you’ll have at the theater this holiday season.
After the suicide of patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), his children, their spouses, and their kids gather together to mourn his passing. Aiding Lt. Elliot (LaKeith Stanfield) and State Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) in wrapping up the police investigation is renowned sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Though initial reports seem clear cut, Blanc suspects that not all is how it seems. Somehow, Blanc knows that underneath the clean, calm veneer of the well-do-to Thrombey family, something festers, waiting to be exposed. But will he figure out the mystery of Harlan Thrombey’s death before it’s too late?
Knives Out is a deeply entertaining film for a number of reasons. It is heavily aware of itself from the very beginning and is not afraid to go extremely meta, takes extreme pains to make the most of its cast, is structure as fast-paced without sacrificing emotional connection, and balances the exceptional cast of talent with ease. Like any good mystery, if even one of the pieces is out of sorts, the whole thing crumbles. While there are aspects which may work better for some than others, the choices made by Johnson in the design and execution of Knives Out are nothing sort of spectacular. The end result? A film which is as energetic and snappy as the marketing suggests, while keeping its best secrets at bay. To honor his work, this review will avoid those particular aspects for now and, instead, explore some of the more obvious bits which create Johnson’s narrative web.
The phrase “knives out” is the most obvious and an excellent entry point for the hilariously irreverent murder mystery as it suggests defense against unfriendly or hostile individuals. There is murder afoot, so it’s best to be on guard at all times. Johnson beautifully plays with this, specifically the notion of being guarded, in the initial moments of the film and carries it forward in various ways. For the Thrombey’s, it’s not just that Harlan’s dead, it’s that his entire $60 million+ estate is on the line, so each conversation the principle players have with Elliot and Wagner is presented to the audience in a similarly staged fashion via flash back. Their patriarch dead, the only thing they have is their reputation, and each member presents a polished view of relationship to Harlan. This immediately puts the audience on edge, unable to determine who to trust. Amid the cast of fan favorites — Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Riki Lindhome, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Chris Evans — there appears to not be a single authentic one in the bunch. But that’s only because their stories are equally dissimilar, so much so that one character comments on the Clue nature of things while trying to suss out the truth. But here’s the thing: the audience expects Clue (1985). They expect Murder By Death (1976). They expect Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Johnson takes this expectation and folds it unto itself so as to create, as another character puts it, “a hole inside a donut.” If the audience expects danger, if they expect murder, if they expect tension, then the best thing Johnson can do is to subvert it all: which he does with aplomb. The tension is, at times, absolutely palatable and consistently delectable. This makes the danger feel treacherous for every character and the use of humor to break tension a welcome relief. Here’s the thing, though, the use of humor is only funny due to what Johnson shows the audience. It’s all about perception. Taking away what the audience knows creates a straight drama, but by including the audience in aspects which we would otherwise would not know in a more standard whodunit, opportunities to mine the situation for its ridiculousness appear without reducing dramatic tension. Johnson’s approach left this reviewer smiling from beginning to end.
But it’s not all jokes and murder. Within Knives Out Johnson does some excellent exploration of socio-economic politics as fodder for interpersonal conflict. Harlon is a hugely successful mystery writer, each of his children and their spouses are equally accomplished, and his grandchildren are well taken care of as well. None, save Harlon, must work for their riches, and this serves as the foundation for familial strife. This also becomes the churning rage from which anyone in the Thrombey family could become motivated to kill. Except it doesn’t appear like this at first. Though each are, in some form of another sympathetic, except for Martell’s Nazi-loving grandson Jaco, the more time the audience spends with them, the more obvious their moral compass is tarnished from having things too easily handed to them. It’s all initially set up beautifully by little things like Don Johnson’s Richard Drysdale who constantly changes the country of origin for Harlon’s nurse Marta (played beautifully by Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas) despite his constant comments to the investigators that Marta’s like family. Or how Marta’s sucked into a discussion of immigration policy because “she’s one of the good ones.” Or how they treat Craig’s Blanc, with their subtextual constant questioning of his methods despite knowing his reputation, only to have it made blatant by Evan’s Ransom Drysdale calling Blanc “CSI: KFC.” These little moments, easily passed off as unimportant in the larger scheme, create a mosaic of unmerited classism. This is perhaps why Johnson crafted Blanc to be a Southerner solving a crime in New York. Some audiences may struggle with Craig’s down-home accent, but, I suspect, the intentionality of it is to add extra fuel to the conflict. Northerners are known for viewing Southerners as rubes, utter corn pones incapable of finding their way out of a paper bag, let alone discover the truth of a crime. It makes it all the more delicious when Blanc’s introduction is by way of intrigue as he wordlessly influences Elliott and Wagner’s 1-1 interviews with the Thrombeys.
For those more interested in murder mystery goodness than interpersonal politics, don’t fret. Knives Out has plenty of twists, turns, and hidden intents to keep audiences tuned in and turned on for the duration. It all goes back to a smart script from Johnson which never panders to its audience, instead, asking them to rise up to his level. This means no gross-out humor for the sake it, no unnecessary violence, and not a single unkind word unless it’s to cut someone down. To hear Plummer’s Harlon lament that “some people don’t know the difference between prop knife and real one,” it almost breaks your heart. Conversely, as much as Harlon’s personal expression of familial mourning with hurt, the way Evans tells his family to “eat shit” will lead to uproarious laughter. None of Johnson’s story works without the performances from his cast and each one brings their best, ensuring that not a single weak link is among them. For whatever nitpicks exist, they are negligible when you’re having this much fun. Given the opportunity, this reviewer would’ve gone for a second round as soon as the film ended. So put on your deerstalker, grab your magnifying glass, and get ready for one of the best films of 2019.
In theaters November 27th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.