By Matthew Simmons
Rian Johnson has steadily been working up as one of the best working directors today. Films like BRICK and LOOPER showcased the director’s keen attention to detail, while STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI proved that Johnson can easily bring that same depth to a beloved franchise. Before Johnson reportedly travels back to that galaxy far, far away, he takes on the murder mystery genre with his latest feature, KNIVES OUT. Branded as “A Rian Johnson Whodunnit”, the film follows Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) as he investigates the sudden apparent suicide of 85 year old Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a bestselling mystery novelist. He leaves behind a massive estate and fortune, one that his family has been using to help propel them into successful careers – a real estate mogul (Jamie Lee Curtis), a head of Harlan’s own publishing company (Michael Shannon), a Goop-like lifestyle guru (Toni Collette) – all of which have been using the family money for their own personal use, and all of which are viable suspects. Blanc immediately suspects foul play, so he enlists the help of Harlan’s nurse and close friend, Marta (Ana de Armas), and the two of them must figure out the chain of events that lead to Harlan’s death.
Most of the film takes place within the Thrombey estate, and it is a gorgeous centerpiece for the film. It’s filled to the brim with various statues, paintings, large archways and a peculiar wheel of knives that is prominent in many scenes. One character correctly describes it as “straight out of CLUE”, one of the many references and homages to classic staples of the genre. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin shoots the manor deep in shadows, as if a character or secret could be hidden around any corner (and sometimes they are). It’s a fabulous piece of production design and I’m sure on future rewatches holds a multitude of clues and hints.
While KNIVES OUT is heavily rooted in the mystery genre, it plays with those usual expectations and subverts them in consistently fresh and surprising ways. There’s a bit of information released early on the film that sets this film apart from other whodunnits, and this structure allows Johnson to cast doubt behind every character’s actions and makes the viewer unaware of what will happen next. The screenplay is not only a meticulously crafted and wildly entertaining thrill ride, it’s also quite funny. While there are a few laugh-out-loud visual gags (maybe the best on-screen use of vomit?), most of the laughs come from the confrontations between characters, usually through the clever dialogue. The comedy and mystery elements are balanced expertly so one does not cut the tension throughout. It also has a fairly large amount to say about the current socio-political state of our country in a way that was a welcome surprise. I won’t spoil any of the surprises in store, but all of this amounts to an instantly iconic final shot that wraps up the movie in great fashion.
The whole star-studded cast is clearly having a ball bringing these characters to life, maybe none-so as much as Craig’s detective, whose outrageous southern drawl and ability to seemingly appear out of nowhere is a delight every time he’s on screen. His interactions with Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan’s cops are highly entertaining. The Thrombey family is solid overall as well, even if they’re not all equally utilized, with Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette and Chris Evans doing the most with what they’re given (Evans especially shines playing against his type). But it’s Ana de Armas’s turn as Marta that practically carries the film. De Armas has been proving her chops in notable supporting roles, but here she flexes her muscles in a fully fledged lead performance and knocks it out of the park. Her kind nature contrasts heavily with the egotistical and selfish Thrombey’s, and provides the film with an unexpected amount of heart. Marta and Harlan share some scenes early on that are remarkably tender and build their relationship in a way that’s integral for the film to work, and it works like gangbusters.
KNIVES OUT is the definition of perfect entertainment. In a year filled with some superb movies, this one is easily the most fun I’ve had in a theater. Johnson has crafted a stylized, clever and purely unique film that, in a fair and just world, would spawn numerous sequels with Detective Blanc solving mysteries around the country. I wish all movies were as fun as this.
Final Score: 4.6 out of 5