Knives Out Review
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is, in my book, the most purely entertaining film of the year (sorry, Avengers: Endgame). Every twist and turn of this carefully crafted whodunnit is thrilling. And not only is this film a tight little mystery story, but it also has a bit of scathing social commentary about where America is at in 2019. Topped off by an avidly charismatic cast, Johnson unspools his murder mystery in a way that would make Agatha Christie smile.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a successful mystery writer and Thrombey family patriarch, has died under mysterious circumstances. He’s discovered in his study by the housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), his throat slashed and coated in blood, seemingly by his own hand. It’s quickly ruled a suicide, despite some lingering questions. After all, why would someone as successful as Thrombey slit his own throat? A pair of cops (played wonderfully by Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) conduct a small investigation of the Thrombey estate, just to make sure they didn’t miss anything. Knives Out opens with the interviews with each of the family members. Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Thrombey’s daughter, is a businesswoman with an unfaithful husband (Don Johnson). The two have an awful son, Ransom (Chris Evans) who exited Harlan’s birthday party in a huff. Thrombey’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs his father’s publishing company but has been seen in heated arguments with his old man. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is a self-styled self-help guru that has been helping herself by quietly stealing money from Harlan. The cast is rounded out by Marta Cabrera (Ana De Armas), Harlan’s nurse and closest confidant, and the true heroine of Knives Out.
The book seems to be closed on this case, and the cops are ready to rule it a suicide and bail. Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a famous “gentleman detective” with a thick southern drawl and an oversized ego. Blanc was delivered an envelope of money and a newspaper clipping of the case anonymously. Who hired him to investigate this case? And why do they want it investigated? These questions, along with the mystery of Harlan’s death, are the main narrative threads of the film. Johnson manages to take mystery movie tropes — the singular, palatial setting, the masterful but exaggerated detective, and the family of misfits and miscreants — and spins them into something fresh.
Craig is wonderful — his speech about donuts later in the film is delightful. Unfortunately, some of the cast gets lost in the margins; it’s inevitable with a cast this large. If you’re going into Knives Out as a fan of a specific actor, be aware that your favorite may get short shrift here. If the promising De Armas is your favorite, then you’re in luck: she’s the heart of the film and gives Johnson the opportunity to give Knives Out a bit of political commentary. Marta is a clever girl, with a penchant for vomiting if she lies (which, believe it or not, is useful when trying to solve a possible murder), and is deeply distraught by Harlan’s death. The rest of the Thrombeys claim to love Marta, even if they can’t remember which South American country she comes from. Don Johnson manages to get in a few sharp scenes as the kind of guy that rants about immigration before quoting Hamilton. The commentary isn’t as interwoven into the film as in, say, Get Out, but it is similar in the way it uses genre conventions and structure to make some points about wealth and social inequality. De Armas has never landed a role this large, and she delivers.
Johnson’s frequent collaborator, Steve Yedlin, imbues this film with stylish visuals and cinematography. He never lets his camera get in the way of the mystery and intrigue. On top of that, the production design here is wonderful; Harlan’s massive house looks like a life-sized Clue board (and hey, that wall of knives is pretty cool). In the end, this is a film that works thanks to Johnson’s clear love for the genre. It doesn’t go so far into referential or meta territory as to be intolerable.
Ultimately, this genre is all about the whodunit — and in Knives Out, that reveal unfurls in such a way that as soon as you think you’ve pieced it all together, you realize something doesn’t quite fit. When the credits finally roll, you’ll start unraveling its marvelous nature like a detective yourself. And man does Johnson stick the landing here, with probably the best final shot of 2019. It seems fitting to say that Harlan Thrombey himself would have loved this particular mystery.