Knives Out is directed, written, and produced by Rian Johnson and stars an ensemble cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, and Christopher Plummer.
It is worth mentioning that I am something of a sucker for a good ol' fashioned mystery: whether in print or audio-visual form. I've always been fascinated by the structure of a mystery-based story, largely because the payoff of when a (good) mystery is solved is one of the most satisfying feelings I've felt while reading a novel or watching a film. So when a juicy, all-star whodunit like Knives Out rolls around, you can bet your ass I'll be there to see it. The first thing that comes to mind when looking at Knives Out is questioning if the movie is essentially a modernized and more straightforward version of Clue. The title should be an indication that we won't be dealing with candlesticks, lead pipes, and wrenches, although they'll certainly still be a lot of deciphering of who was where and doing what at the time of the murder. Here's the thing: we don't want Knives Out to be a revival of Clue, because we've already seen that song and dance, and it isn't as fun watching it the second time around. What we do want is for Knives Out to be in the spirit of Clue: bouncy, unpredictable, and never taking itself too seriously. Being in the spirit of Clue is something Knives Out excels at, but the best part is, that's only the icing on what is a delicious cake of a movie.
Rian Johnson has been a bit of a notorious figure among movie-goers the past two years; The Last Jedi brought about the wrath of the Star Wars fanbase, and with the backlash came slamming remarks by fans about how Johnson "ruined" Star Wars and forever tarnished the overarching saga. Whatever your thoughts on The Last Jedi (this guy here ended up liking it by a lot), there is far more evidence out there that Rian Johnson is a stellar director and writer, and Knives Out, seeing its rave reviews and reasonable box office success I think is only going to quiet his critics further. There are certain movies you can watch and can say to yourself, "Yep, that's a Steven Spielberg film" or, "Yep, I've seen all those moments before. I am watching a Michael Bay film." So while I don't think Rian Johnson has developed that sort of intangible presence yet with his films, what I can say with certainty is this: Johnson's enthusiasm for making a film like Knives Out leaps off the screen and is highly contagious. This is a guy that always wanted to make a murder mystery and is psyched that his lifelong dream has finally come true. The last thing he cares about with Knives Out is what a bunch of angry Star Wars fans have to say about him.
The movie opens at the house of wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Plummer). Housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) goes upstairs one morning and finds Harlan dead, his throat being slit. The police bring several members of Harlan's family for questioning: his eldest daughter Linda Drysdale (Curtis), his youngest son Walt (Shannon), his grandson Hugh Drysdale (Evans), son-in-law and Linda's husband Richard Drysdale (Johnson), and widow of deceased son Neil, Joni (Colette). Also involved is Harlan's nurse, Marta Cabrera (de Armas). Leading the investigation is the eccentric private detective Benoit Blanc (Craig), who learns piece by piece that Harlan had a falling out with each family member being questioned. A dead body and multiple suspects. Yep, it's indeed a whodunit.
For about a third of the way through, Knives Out is a whodunit, until Rian Johnson decides to turn his whodunit completely inside out and morph it into something else altogether. It's extremely difficult to discuss what I mean without giving direct spoilers, so bear with me if I sound rather vague. In a traditional whodunit, we have multiple suspects from multiple backgrounds; the fun is in learning about the lives of each suspect, what their motivations are, and how they came to know the person who gets murdered. Then comes the part where we have to take a step back and look closer at our interlinked web and find out which person's story doesn't mesh well with the others. Whoever's story doesn't add up is almost always the one who is guilty. Knives Out does about the first third of this process, and then it veers off course onto a stray dirt road that no one saw initially. Rian Johnson is not trying to be clever for the sake of being clever, nor is he trying to break new ground in the mystery genre. What it is is Johnson taking a story dressed up as a whodunit and using it to make a neat commentary on who the characters are representing.
- The best thing of all about Knives Out is just how damn fun it is: a mystery comprised of meaty, thought-provoking details, an all-star cast, and a script that allows said all-star cast to exchange caustic and hilarious dialogue with one another. Rian Johnson takes the whodunit structure and plays around with it for almost the entirety of the film's 130-ish minutes, and this playful state of mind permeates throughout the entire cast, all of whom are having as much fun as the their director is. Daniel Craig soaks up every little bit of eccentricity that the script displays of Blanc, because a goofy, offbeat family requires a goofy, offbeat detective. The Thrombeys, meanwhile, are prime examples of snobby rich folks who believe themselves to be on a higher plane than everyone else. Every Thrombey member wholeheartedly believes they will get a piece of Harlan's fortune, because the rich always get richer. The reason the humor in the movie works so well is because the Thrombey family suspects are all vying for control, and they all look like total buffoons while doing it. There's nothing to distinguish these people; it's the same stuck-up personality multiplied several times. Watching the Thrombeys clash is like watching a bunch of lemmings race to see who can be the first one to jump off the cliff; they're all goners when it's all said and done. The Thrombeys are a great example of why watching people trying to be serious and failing will always be funnier than watching people try to be funny. The rich folks yell, scream, and rip each other to shreds, and we're laughing our heads off every step of the way.
- Much to Rian Johnson's credit, Knives Out presents a thoughtfully put together murder mystery, layered with much more than just a dead body, a weapon, and a bunch of suspects who are connected to the now deceased person. I will reveal details about the murder which I think borders on minor spoilers, but nothing that I think would make you turn away from this review now and come back after watching the movie. Anyway, we first see that Harlan has his throat slit, but it's quickly revealed that Harlan apparently committed suicide, which complicates the question of if he was really murdered. Furthermore, Marta was responsible for giving Harlan pain medicine every night, and sure enough, the medicine plays a part in Harlan's death as well. This is a mystery that ends up being about much more than just uncovering events of the not too distant past, events that Rian Johnson is more than happy to provide us much earlier than expected. What happens is that Blanc and the other detectives have to uncover the clues about Harlan's death, while also keeping up with the events of the present, specifically the matter of who gets Harlan's fortune. The characters are in a tug of war with both the past and present, and it presents a series of challenges that never allows the film to become totally stagnant.
- Actually, to say the film is never stagnant would be a bit of a betrayal of my own thoughts towards the movie, because I do think the movie is a bit slow in the beginning. Once it gets going though, it moves gracefully. The slow beginning isn't the biggest issue with the movie, though. The biggest issue in Knives Out is what it does with the character of Marta Cabrera, specifically with her motivations and general thought process throughout the film. Marta goes back and forth between being an innocent bystander and a potential suspect, and it's never clear (at least, not until the very end) as to what she hopes to get out of this murder investigation, and how she feels towards those around her. Again, it's extremely difficult for me to discuss this point without sounding vague, so bear with me as I try to stick to my motto of never giving major spoilers. Marta is understandably horrified when she learns of Harlan's murder, and so she cooperates with Blanc and the police. Later on however, Marta gets an opportunity in which she sheds her innocent skin and starts to act in opposition to Blanc and the police. Then when more details of the murder are revealed, Marta goes back to being the innocent party that she was initially. It's incredibly erratic behavior for a character that has no reason to be erratic; her actions and decisions end up hindering the flow of the story. Luckily, Rian Johnson still ends up where he wants to when all is said and done, but the journey getting there is rather bumpy. If this behavior was with one of the Trombey characters, I probably wouldn't give it much thought, but because Marta quickly develops into one of the movie's main characters, it's impossible to ignore.
So while Knives Out is advertised as a Rian Johnson whodunit, the truth is that it's a Rian Johnson whodunit that takes the whodunit mystery formula and turns it completely upside down. We have much more than a dead body, multiple suspects, and a cheeky detective. We have extra character motivations, more depth, and a final result that ends up saying something quite effective about the characters and their backgrounds. Rian Johnson once again proves his directing and writing talents with Knives Out: a razor sharp murder mystery that is as fun as it intelligent. While the movie is slow in the beginning and has some inconsistencies with one of its central characters, there is so much entertainment to be had watching an all-star cast play a bunch of snobby rich people who get their comeuppance. This was a movie Rian Johnson always wanted to make, and his childlike enthusiasm is prevalent in every frame. Nothing like watching people see one of their dreams come true.
Recommend? Yes. The movie is a ton of fun and definitely worth your time.
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