With his first feature retort following Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sees the polarizing filmmaker twirl around a cinematic top hat, pulling off a happy assortment of magic tricks. For 130 minutes, the writer-director disorients and delights, confidently trailblazing through his murder mystery two, maybe even three steps ahead of the audience. This isn’t a simple, direct testament to the slick, sidesplitting script, nor the fully committed, second-to-none ensemble, but rather a passed inspection of these cogs and their ability to form a purely entertaining experience.
The film calls back a time before the genre turned into a parody of itself, when audiences could be both astonished and impressed by a well-told caper. Architected in part by the penny novels and Agatha Christie stories from back then, Knives Out never devolves into a caricature of its form, but rather exploits its common cants for winning results. Complete with enough motives to alarm the Kindergarten Cop, invisible ink, a gothic manor reminiscent of a Clue board, spin-inducing revelations, and last-minute (“WAIT!”) interjections, the movie’s roots can be easily traced back to the fond-filled heart of a respecting creator.
Famed murder-mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead. Found by the housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson), with his throat slit and the knife still in hand, it appears to be a suicide. But there are some questions. This is a rather random incident, having taken place on the night of his 85th birthday party. And after all, who really slits their own throat?
A pair of cops (winning team LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) venture to the Thrombey manor to initiate interrogation introductions of the whole, far-from-flawless family: daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a successful businesswoman bound to her insufferable husband Richard (Don Johnson) and awful spawn, Ransom (Chris Evans); son Walt (Michael Shannon), who handles the publishing aspect of the book business, though his squabbles with the old man have grown in intensity and occurrence; and snooty daughter-in-law Judy (Toni Collette), whose maternal connection to the Thrombey’s was cut long ago, though she’s stayed within an arm’s reach of Harlan’s pockets ever since.
The case may have left ruled as a suicide had it not been for the presence of renowned detective Benoit Blanc (an instantly memorable Daniel Craig). Johnson’s own Poirot at play, Blanc often perches himself in the observation deck of the action, methodically scraping for clues; and it doesn’t take long for him to suspect foul play. But why is a world class investigator at a suicide site? It’s another one of the director’s gripping questions, driving the narrative only a little less powerfully than the murder at hand. Blanc was delivered an anonymous bundle of cash with a news story about Thrombey attached; it’s a detective’s contract.
Craig steals the show here; as he starts to rapidly piece the puzzle together, the excitement he exudes is just as palpable for those watching as it is for him. But, unsurprisingly, some of the cast gets lost, an inevitable qualm of ensemble whodunits. Other minuscule but well-executed parts belong to IT’s Jaeden Martell as Walt’s boy, a social(media)lite neo-Nazi, and 13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford as Judy’s Ivy League (or some other expensive school-attending) daughter.
The only other role that matches Craig’s in duration and importance is Ana de Armas’ warm nurse Marta, who’s really the heart of this film. But her character also serves as an avenue for Johnson to incorporate some biting social commentary into the piece. Mystery writers have long found ways to incorporate class critique into their work, and through snobbish, revealing dialogue, The Last Jedi director is no exception. The Thrombey’s claim to love Marta, though they never seem to remember which South American country she’s from, and in a Get Out-like, scrambling attempt at sounding “hip,” Walt throws a Hamilton line into a rant about immigration.
As a whole, mystery films walk a very tight line beyond their politics. The task at hand cannot be so indecipherable that it loses its audience attention or scorns their intelligence. But then again, a predictable finale leads to censures of poor writing. But rest assured, Knives Out doesn’t have to worry about landing in either pool. Rian Johnson’s ecstatically thrilling whodunit has found a middle ground, one that guides our hand through its several reveals without, for the most part, feeling condescending. Simply put, this movie’s as interactive an experience as turning a page, and probably more fun than any novel Harlan ever wrote.
By proudly relaying the classic whodunit form, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out returns to thrilling glory a genre whose cover has felt blown for a very long time.