With all of his films, writer/director Rian Johnson does something rather remarkable: he takes a genre he loves and studies it until he understands all of its working parts. He discovers what exactly he loves so much about a particular genre, then piece by piece, he creates his own version of it, assembling something like a greatest hits package of tropes and characters, so that the final film feels familiar but also remarkably fresh and unique. Then he populates his works with some of the coolest actors on the planet, and it all works. He’s not borrowing scenes or music cues or character types from other films, the way Quentin Tarantino does (and I happen to love the way he does what he does as well); instead, Johnson wants to create rather than recycle.
He’s used this method for film noir (his debut, Brick), heist films (The Brothers Bloom), time travel movies (Looper), and even that niche sci-fi sub-genre known as the Star Wars universe (The Last Jedi). Sometimes what he creates can be divisive, but most times we get something like his latest and perhaps finest film, Knives Out. It’s Johnson’s take on the Agatha Christie-style whodunit murder mystery, complete with a family full of suspects, each one more reprehensible than the last, and an eccentric private detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, really lathering on the Southern accent and charm), a character I would love to see solve a half-dozen more mysteries over the next 20 years.
I won’t say too much about the murder at the center of Knives Out. The victim is renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is found with his throat slit just after a big family party in his Gothic mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday. As we find out through the course of the flashback-heavy running time, Harlan took the opportunity of the party to let each of his grown children (played by Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans) know just where they stand with him, and most of them end up pretty upset with what he relays, giving them all some degree of motive. The only non-family members in the house are servants and Harlan’s personal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), perhaps the only true friend the old man had in the world.
Naturally, the police (LaKeith Stanfield as Lieutenant Elliott, and Johnson regular Noah Segan as Trooper Wagner) are called in, but after they rule the death a suicide, detective Blanc is sent an anonymous note suggesting more may be afoot and that murder may be on the menu. What’s particularly interesting about Knives Out is that the truth about Harlan’s death is revealed to us fairly early in the story, so the real mystery becomes why everyone in this family is lying to the police about, well, everything. Blanc leans on Marta to be his partner in solving the crime and as his sounding board; she has the odd biological tic of getting violently ill whenever she tells a lie, so he trusts her implicitly.
During the course of the investigation, the various family members reveal themselves to be entitled, right-leaning monsters (one of Harlan’s grandsons enjoys learning about neo-Nazis on the internet in his spare time), but that doesn’t necessarily mean they killed anybody. Through Johnson’s impeccably written screenplay—filled with red herrings and misdirection for days—Blanc uncovers just how desperate some of these folks are. The production design (by David Crank), as well as the art direction (Jeremy Woodward) and set decoration (David Schlesinger) is remarkable, and provides us with an unforgettable and wonderfully useful stage for the story to play out, complete with hidden doors and odd little rooms that we imagine a great mystery writer would surround himself with.
Each of the actors gets at least one prime moment to truly shine, and as as result, Michael Shannon’s Walt comes across more desperate and pathetic than we first realize, and we almost come to feel sorry for him. Meanwhile, Evans’ Ransom seems like the only reasonable, right-thinking one of the bunch (he left the family confines years earlier), though reveals himself to be a true bastard. The only character that we never really get to know below the surface is Blanc, which is a shame because certainly Craig could handle any emotional baggage a crack detective might be carrying. But it’s de Armas who shoulders the heart and soul of the piece, and she does superb work as the keeper of her employer’s secrets as long as she’s able (or until the urge to throw up overcomes her).
Above all else, Knives Out is a hoot. If it weren’t for the cell phones and occasion references to the current administration, this story could have easily been set in just about any decade in the last hundred years (the filthy rich are deplorable in every era). It has a beautifully timeless quality to both its story and its visual elements. And although I might not call it a comedy, the humor supplies a great deal of energy to the proceedings, and the film reveals a few actors not normally known for comedy to be quite deft at it. This is an easy movie to adore and watch over and over, revealing new subtleties to the performances and the filmmaking. So come for the mystery, but don’t forget to take a look around at the eccentric decor and the group of actors clearly having the time of their lives.
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