With Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi being his most high-profile efforts, you would be forgiven for thinking of Rian Johnson as a sci-fi guy (or, if you were a member of a certain portion of fandom, as “that f$#king guy who ruined my favourite sci-fi franchise! *SPIT*”). With the likes of Brick, Brothers Bloom, and Breaking Bad, Johnson’s filmmaking roots are actually found in the far more terrestrial domains of crime and murder. And it’s to those roots that the writer/director makes a flourishingly dramatic return in the razor-sharp Knives Out, a wildly entertaining whodunnit that stands as a blood-splattered love letter to the works of murder mystery mistress Agatha Christie.
Johnson assembles all the expected components – the impossible death, the contained crime scene, the extensive and colourful list of suspects, the eccentric detective – and then shakes them all up with stage magician trickery. Wielding both his wit and his writer’s pen like a dagger, Johnson slays the audience and their expectation every bit as bloodily as the film’s unfortunate victim. And you will love him for it!
The said victim, in this case, being Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plumber), an octogenarian patriarch who has made a sizable fortune as an internationally renowned murder mystery writer (the character being a master of this very genre leading to much hilarity in his demise). On his 85th birthday, Harlan’s dysfunctional family have all gathered in the byzantine family mansion to celebrate his life, but end up mourning his death when he is found dead in his study the following morning. All immediate evidence point to suicide and the local police (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) seem inclined to agree, but something is amiss.
Enter Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a Kentucky-fried private eye with a Foghorn Leghorn drawl who suspects fowl play. Sorry, foul play. That avian metaphor got away from me there. Nothing is getting away from Benoit though, as he wrangles together everybody who was present the night of Harlan’s birthday party to turn up the heat in a series of interviews.
The Thrombeys – consisting of Harlan’s children, their spouses, their children – are a motley bunch of potential suspects. There’s the family black sheep, the ambitious dreamer, the insecure husband, the control freak, and more. And they’re all brought to full-spectrum life by a talent-stacked ensemble consisting of Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Jaeden Martell, Katherine Langford and more. Revealing here who plays what part may be a disservice though. Johnson does such a fantastic job in filling these genre staple roles with as much clue-providing paraphernalia as the sumptuous, brooding mansion where much of Knives Out takes place and uncovering the nooks and crannies of both cast and locale is a joy best left unspoiled.
The one exception I’ll make is Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s soft-spoken nurse and caretaker. Through the most peculiar of stomach-churning alibis, Marta was the only one present on the night of Harlan’s death who is beyond suspicion. As such, Benoit ropes her in as his inside women, the wide-eyed Watson to his flamboyant Holmes. And de Armas dazzles!
Craig’s deliciously over-the-top affectations as “the last of the gentlemen detectives”, so far removed from the British actor’s rigidly serious James Bond work so as to be alien, will rightfully be memorable as his Benoit Blanc is an absolute hoot (I would definitely not say no to more of his cinematic adventures). But while Craig brings the theatricality, it’s de Armas who often has to do the dramatic heavy lifting. She absolutely nails every aspect, whether it’s being a completely out-of-her-depth amateur sleuth or a grief-stricken friend or even just physical comedian.
And there certainly is comedy. Knives Out’s opening twenty minutes or so is more of a muted affair as we establish the initial crime, but once Benoit begins twisting the proverbial thumbscrews and plots are uncovered, it turns into a jolly riot. On top of the laughs, Johnson heaps twists upon twists, but never lets things get unintentionally ridiculous – this serpentine story never eats its own tail. Instead, the mystery constantly stays one step… two steps… entire dance numbers ahead of the audience as things just never go the way you expect.
I can’t stress enough just how cleverly Johnson zigs when you expect to him to zag throughout the film. That type of formula-defying plotting and characterization may not have ingratiated him with some Star Wars fans (a fact that Johnson even tips his hat to in hilarious fashion with one character), but in a genre where the very highest of ambitions is to always keep the audience guessing, it succeeds wildly.
A lot of this is also due to the cast selling their roles so damn well, and clearly having fun while doing so. That’s probably not a tall order when the dialogue that Johnson provides them – and there’s a lot of it, in a film that is almost exclusively just a series of talking heads – sizzles with white-hot wit and a number of unexpectedly timely and poignant talking points and themes. Steve Yedlin’s deeply textured cinematography and Nathan Johnson’s athletic score accentuating each of Johnson’s exquisitely engineered exchanges to the point where there’s a whole lot of exciting action even though there’s really no action.
Sitting at 130-minutes total running time, Knives Out is an especially lengthy film then for some who may crave actual explosions in their entertainment, but it’s hard to deny just how explosively enjoyable this film is. Whoddunit? Rian Johnson did it, and damn he did it magnificently.
Last Updated: November 28, 2019