Writer-director Rian Johnson, who’s responsible for taking Star Wars in a bold new direction with The Last Jedi, has made a career out of putting his distinctive fingerprint in a variety of genres. From the film noir/high school drama pastiche of Brick to the time-travel assassin concept of Looper, Johnson has shown an uncanny ability to playfully defy genre expectations while simultaneously honoring the genre he’s operating within. And with Knives Out, the filmmaker takes a stab at the murder mystery genre. And working with an ensemble to end all ensembles, Johnson reinvents the old-fashioned whodunit in incredibly funny and highly contemporary fashion.
Knives Out begins by setting up all the ingredients of an old-fashioned whodunit: Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), the patriarch of the wealthy Thrombey family, is pronounced dead on the night of his 85th birthday, shortly after the entire family gathered for a celebration. When the entire family reconvenes for the funeral, a super southern and anonymously hired detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to confirm his suspicions of foul play.
The suspects are as follows: Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), son-in-law and Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson), widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), and his three grandchildren (Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, and Jaeden Martell). And then there’s Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s caregiver, who might have had the most intimate relationship with the deceased.
Shortly after setting up the various characters and motives, Rian Johnson giddily shuffles the deck and re-deals the cards, giving us a specific perspective into the unfolding murder mystery plot that allows the filmmaker to defy genre expectations and tie in some timely talking points. Themes of immigration and an entitled upper class are playfully weaved into the labyrinthine story, which takes a turn early on that sets the narrative down an unpaved road. Half of the fun of Knives Out is being cleverly deceived by a storyteller who’s more interested in entertaining you than just tricking you.
And yet, Knives Out never gets bogged down in its political ideas, because Rian communicates them through the entertaining banter of a dysfunctional family whose primary function is dissing. Everyone in the eclectic cast seems so incredibly happy to play a part in executing Rian’s original vision, and their enthusiasm comes through in their hysterically committed performances. Everyone in the Thrombey family is very distinct in how they are written, and each actor plays their respective forms of snooty entitlement to a tee. And when the enfranchised family is put in a powerless position, the tensions rise to absurdly funny levels.
The overt theatricality of the Thrombeys is nicely offset by the grounded and comparably normal Marta, who becomes central to Rian’s unique version of Clue. Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049), who’s talent has mainly been relegated to supporting parts, finally gets a substantive role in which to shine, and shine she does. Amidst the immense wealth of acting prowess that Rian has brought together, Ana brings an immediate likability and humanity to a film filled with antagonistic characters. She is the linchpin of Knives Out that holds it all together, and her interplay with Daniel Craig’s detective.
Speaking of Daniel Craig, the actor has never been this goofy, and Knives Out is all the better for it. This is as far away from Craig’s moody, hardened James Bond as you can possibly get. His squeaky criminal in last year’s Logan Lucky feels relatively low-key compared to the performance he gives here. And Rian Johnson gives Craig so many deliciously dopey lines to chew on, which the actor delivers in the funniest way possible every. single. time. Just wait until he starts rambling on about donut holes.
With a cast this huge, it’s inevitable that some characters feature more prominently than others. And because of the way Rian decides to take the story, many of the family members end up being sidelined for a significant portion of the film. It’s thanks to how good everyone is that I wanted more Michael Shannon and Toni Collette, because they bring so much to the limited screen-time they have. The under-utilization of some characters doesn’t detract from how much fun Knives Out is, but it does significantly narrow down the list of suspects. But when the journey to the answer of whodunit is so thrillingly fresh, I can live with the fact that my mid-film hunch about one of the reveals was correct.
The Thrombey estate (where much of the film takes place) is wonderfully and elaborately designed to, as LaKeith Stanfield’s Lieutenant Elliot describes it, resemble a “Clue board.” Cinematographer Steve Yedlin finds interesting ways to frame and shoot scenes that sometimes involve a multitude of characters. He also plays with mysterious shadows and lighting to great effect; one shot of Katherine Langford’s Meg, surrounded by shadow, with only her eyes lit, is especially striking. And Nathan Johnson’s string-heavy score fits right in with the murder mystery genre.
Knives Out is a one of those prime examples, where it’s probably as fun to watch as it was to make. And one of the main reasons it’s so entertaining is because of how playful it is with the expectations of the genre in which it exists. And out of that playfulness blossoms something that feels fresh and truly original. This is the movie to see with the family this Thanksgiving weekend.
Knives Out is rated PG-13, and it’s now playing in theaters.
All images courtesy of Lionsgate.