Knives Out (2019)
Hell, any of them could have done it.
When successful mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) takes his own life on the occasion of his 85th birthday, the question of whodunnit to the whodunnit scribe immediately becomes paramount. While his family, Walt (Michael Shannon) and Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), their spouses, Donna (Riki Lindhome), Richard (Don Johnson), and Joni (Toni Collette) (wife of his late son Neil), and children, Ransom (Chris Evans), Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell), bicker and jockey for position, two cops, Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), attempt to uncover the truth with the help of ‘the last of the gentleman detectives,’ Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Suspicion falls on Harlan’s nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), but the real story is, of course, much, much stranger.
Since his debut feature, the wonderful high school noir Brick (2005), director Rian Johnson has never shied away from putting the constructed nature of his films on full display. No classicist, he delights in reminding us that we are watching a movie, and revels in showing us what movies do better than any other art form, synthesizing design, performance, narrative, sight, sound and more into a singular work of — when it’s done well — incredible power and joy. It’s surprising, in retrospect, that it’s taken him this long to get around to doing an Agatha Christie murder mystery pastiche — the particular and precise conventions of this subgenre, the rules of the game as it were, lend themselves perfectly to his authorial voice. The result is a case of filmmaker and subject working in perfect harmony, yielding entertainment dividends. Knives Out may not be the best film of the year, but it is easily one of the most entertaining.
The challenge here is talking about how great the film is without giving the game away. This is, after all, a playful and carefully constructed murder mystery, and so the less you know going in, the better off you’ll be. But here’s the thing, anyway: the plot is perhaps the least important element in play here. It’s really just an excuse to get all these characters together, played by a staggeringly good cast, and let them bounce off each other in interesting and amusing ways.
Good luck picking a favorite, although Chris Evans, Captain America: Civil War (2016), playing against type as dyed-in-the-wool trust fund piece of shit Hugh ‘Ransom’ Drysdale is a heavy contender. Then there’s Don Johnson’s casually racist trophy husband, or Toni Collette’s failed lifestyle guru, or Michael Shannon’s stunted praise-seeker, his walking stick a visual cue of how life in his father’s shadow has twisted him. Each character is sketched quickly but indelibly, and Johnson trusts his cast to breathe life into these people without too much over-writing in place to do the heavy lifting. You need your wits about you to keep track of the power dynamics in play, especially in the opening movements, but fine performances — deliberately pitched a little histrionically, it must be said — and witty writing makes that a pleasurable task.
It looks like the cast was having a ball, too, and some focus must be assigned to Daniel Craig, a brilliant character actor lumbered with a leading man’s face, and the sheer giddy fun of his performance as the eccentric Benoit Blanc, a suave southern gentleman detective who glides through the grand old upstate New York mansion the film takes place in like an inquisitive ghost, his piercing blue eyes skewering whichever character he’s psychologically dissecting at any given time. If you thought Craig was having a good time in Logan Lucky (2017), you won’t believe what a blast he’s having with this character.
What’s interesting is how little we actually know about Blanc, who is positioned as a kind of superhuman sleuth in the Sherlock Holmes/ Hercule Poirot/ Nero Wolfe mold. There must have been a temptation to shackle him with acres of back story, old cases, nemeses, and what have you, and you get the sense that yes, all this exists outside of the frame of the film. Still, Johnson gives us just enough to get along with and trusts Craig’s command of Blanc’s tics, habits, and affectations to do the work.
However, despite outward appearances, Blanc is not the main character — Ana de Armas’ Marta is, and she’s something of a revelation. De Armas has been around for a bit now, and in Anglophone films has often been cast in roles that depend heavily on her physical beauty, such as the holographic girlfriend Joi in Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and the teen temptress Bell in Knock Knock (2015). Here she’s the moral center of the film, a friend and confidant to Plummer’s octogenarian novelist, the child of an illegal immigrant who treats the Thrombey clan with kindness and respect even when they can’t even be bothered to remember where she’s actually from. Her basic human decency throws the conniving awfulness of the Thrombeys into sharp relief — at one-point, Michael Shannon’s Walt promises that the family will ensure she’s ‘taken care of’ once the old man’s will shakes out, and it comes across as not just tone-deaf, but actually threatening. Marta anchors us; left adrift in Thrombeys’ world we might lose track of just what horrible people they are. With Marta there, we can’t forget.
So there’s some class consciousness present in Knives Out that is often absent from this kind of genre exercise, which generally contents itself with having one rich idiot being offed by another, with a field of similar providing red herrings, but never really interrogates the possibility that rich people are already awful without the need for a corpse cooling on the drawing-room carpet to concretize the notion. The thematic complexity is welcome. Sure, the plot machinations and performances and production design are just top-notch, but Johnson also cleaves tenaciously to the idea that films should probably be about something, and so what could have been a mere genre exercise in other hands is grounded in notions of class, race, privilege, and power that really help carry the whole thing home. The fact that it is of a genre not currently in cultural ascendency will probably keep Knives Out from the wide success it deserves, but the audience it does find will eat it up with glee.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson