|Knives Out / Lionsgate|
On his 85th birthday, acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies unexpectedly and leaves his entire family grasping at straws over his passing. Renown detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) comes in to investigate and teams up with local Thrombey fanboy Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) and Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) to find out the truth. With a massive estate on the line, what is initially ruled as a suicide unravels into a much deeper mystery where everyone - Thrombey's goodhearted nurse Marta (Ana De Armas) and his whole family Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), Walter Thrombey (Michael Shannon), Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), Meg Thrombey (Katharine Langford), Jacob Thrombey (Jaeden Martell) - are a suspect for Harlan's murder.
After the divisive reception to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, taking over the murder-mystery genre is a step in the right direction for director and writer Rian Johnson. His longtime familiarity and appreciation of the genre is evident in Knives Out from beginning to end. From the lone antique-filled house on a hill in the midst of a cold Boston winter to the unraveling plot that manages to stitch itself together act by act, Johnson has total control over the film. Even when the plot ventures in directions you never imagined, he manages to keep it on track but keep you guessing.
At the film's heart and as a true source of zest is the fantastic ensemble. The Thrombeys are teeming with greed, ignorance, and entitlement. A death in the family doesn't necessarily show their true colors, but instead makes their genuine personalities grow more self-absorbed. There are a few sympathetic faces among the selfish elite, but doesn't necessarily dim just how dysfunctional and passionate the family truly is about their own self-interests and their patriarch. Despite the massive undertaking of making sure the characters are treated as evenly as possible, every supporting character feels like a person on their own with potential motives for killing Harlan. They also feel like a part of a whole, and surprisingly, nobody gets too lost in the shuffle - their audacious behaviors almost makes you want to see more of how this family works from the inside out.
Their chaotic dynamics are spectacularly balanced out with Marta and the detectives - Benoit Blanc, Trooper Wagner and Detective Lieutenant Elliot. While the film is definitely an ensemble piece, it's not difficult to see who the film truly belongs to - Ana De Armas, Daniel Craig, and Chris Evans. Even though Marta is apart of the family, she's also clearly an outsider excluding Harlan. She manages to survive their prejudice through a test of wills, courage, and kindness, and becomes of the best written characters and performances of the year. This role, combined with her next stint in Bond, will make it hard to believe her career does anything but skyrocket. Next to her is Blanc, a detective clearly pulled from the archives of every murder mystery detective ever, yet manages to be his own quirky, trusting, enigmatic, sprightly character on his own. (For those who aren't familiar with Craig's work outside of Bond, he's finally going to turn a lot of heads.) And, even though Evans carved out great performances outside of Captain America, it's refreshing to see him emerge from the Marvel umbrella even more; Ransom attracts everyone into his web with honey and vinegar, and Evans's charm makes you trust and question his every move. The trio's chemistry together truly acts as the film's glue.
Expectantly, as a murder mystery, Knives Out runs the risk of audiences figuring out the plot early, leaving the rest of the film to feel boring and uninteresting. While I was left generally guessing all the way through, the main plot is surprisingly answered quite early in the two hour running. Initially, this might give off the impression that the rest of the film will struggle to add up. However, with time and every act afterwards, Johnson's script is a true beast at connecting all the dots; his plotting shines with the full breadth of twists that never stop unfolding.
However, this is also where some of the story decisions works for and against itself - sometimes the direction or script is too obvious for its own good, or sometimes subtle enough to let the atmosphere and dynamics take on a life of their own. Where Johnson goes right is fleshing out the main mystery into a wider plot that weaves Harlan's death into a full circle. As stones are turned, there's always another that has to be turned again. Every act in their entirety is suspenseful and thrilling, even if the revelations themselves might be predictable for some moviegoers. Where Johnson struggles, and only slightly, is when compelling moments are spelled out directly and come across as unnatural and forced instead of letting them be subtle and take on a life of their own - (one regurgitated gimmick that'd probably work on SNL isn't as smart as it thinks it is, and a Thrombey-fueled debate on immigration feels forced rather than a natural extension of how ignorant they are.). There is a slight imbalance with tones that Johnson employs to infuse the moment with wit and tension that doesn't always stick the landing. Even with the smallest details that aren't as strong as they could be, the film combines humor, heart, and suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat.
From beginning to end, Knives Out does as it promises by taking movie goers on an absolute rollercoaster ride. Its immaculate casting, splendid production and costume design, and dauntless performances is a refreshing jaunt outside of beloved franchises and stream-worthy series as of late. It's difficult to not love the film as it is, but also question if its non-stop praise is due in part that we haven't seen a film like this in a while (a la Clue, Gosford Park, etc.), and not because it's absolutely flawless as many claim. That said, Johnson still delivers a funny, suspenseful and relevant murder mystery that breathes new life into the Who Dun It genre.
Rating for Knives Out: ★★★
Have you seen Knives Out? What do you think?