Synopsis – A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.
My Take – Ever since he exploded into the scene with 2005’s neo-noir mystery, Brick, director Rian Johnson has been busy crafting good genre films one after the other. While his 2008 caper comedy-drama, The Brothers Bloom, went under seen, his 2012 mind-altering sci-fi follow up, Looper, garnered the right amount of appreciation to get him a gig to direct a little film called Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), the sequel which controversially charted a bold new course for the classic franchise.
Which also resulted in Johnson being berated on social media by some die-hard fans, with some even calling for the film to be withdrawn and remade. Hence it is understandable that he decided to make his next project something more low key in the form of a whodunit murder mystery, in the vein of old-fashioned Agatha Christie novels and their cinematic adaptations throughout the sixties and seventies of the last century.
However, knowing Rian Johnson‘s film making approach, it is always best to expect that the final product would more than a simple case of catching a killer. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the end result is one of the most terrifically entertaining films of the year.
Rooted in the beloved old-fashioned murder mysteries with the addition of sharp humor and sly references, the film is exactly as fun as you’d hope. It’ll keep you guessing up to the last, it’ll keep you laughing and amused as it all unravels, and there’s plenty more to mine in multiple viewings.
Yes, the film might not be for everyone as director Johnson has quite the outspoken opinion on racism, political standpoints and what’s right and wrong, and might challenge those who don’t agree with a more evolved point of view on humanity. However do watch it for a solid film-going experience that unleashes your inner sleuth.
The story follows the members of the wealthy Thrombey family in a moment of great upheaval, as the family’s patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who built his fortune on the mystery novels he wrote, ends up dead on the night following his 85th birthday with his throat slit in an apparent suicide. While Detective Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) are ready to declare the death a suicide, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a famously sly private investigator suspects foul play, and marks every member of the clan as a suspect.
The extensive list of Thrombey suspects include Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) and his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), his son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Harlan’s widow daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) along with the Drysdales consisting of Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), and their son Ransom (Chris Evans). Finally, there’s Harlan’s mother (K Callan), a nearly mute doyenne who watches the proceedings keenly from her wheel chair.
However, sitting at the center of this maze seems to be Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), an earnest nurse and possibly Harlan’s closest friend/confidant, who could be the key to solving the case, as thanks to her icky habit of throwing up any time she tells a lie. For every duplicitous revelation the airtight plot carves out, an even more jaw-dropping, yet plausible, turn comes to light.
Director Johnson lines the crevices of his explosively engaging ride with relevant political commentary while still earning loud cackles from the audience. As a progressive mystery, the film is a very fashionable film with its grand ensemble of fresh and familiar faces, with most of the film taking place inside the enormous mansion, which by the way has some of the craziest production design I’ve seen all year.
The house is a comedic set piece of its own, filled with macabre statues and dolls and tarantula figurines and a literal roulette wheel of knives. It’s a parody of a creepy, haunted mansion, but of course, at least somewhat believable as the home of a mystery writer. Here, director Rian Johnson gives us a Meta and modern version of the classic Agatha Christie-style suspense thriller. It’s cheeky, it’s packed with twists, and boy is it full of an irresistible sense of fun. As a viewer, you get to become an investigator yourself with director Johnson dropping clues in a compilation of interrogations, reveals, and flashbacks.
But the film’s success lies in not only the unpredictable twist, but the ingenious journey there. The biggest and earliest cliché dodge of the film is in revealing the details of Harlan Thrombey’s death in the first 30 minutes itself. Yes, this is a murder mystery where the murder is solved really early.
It’s an inspiring choice that goes a long way to setting up the rest of the film. We then follow the cover-up underneath Benoit Blanc’s nose the entire time, giving us a fresh and new perspective in an otherwise overdone and tired genre.
But don’t let this lull you into thinking there’s no mystery to be had, as the climax of the film is neither plainly obvious, but nor is it a complete left hook, coming out of nowhere based on no evidence, or on evidence only Benoit Blanc has seen, or on an overabundance of evidence and red herrings, nor is it so outlandish it borders on the unbelievable. The hints and clues are there throughout the film if you’re keen enough to catch them. I caught a couple myself, but had no way of applying them or even knowing they were clues until the final reveal at the end.
Somewhat surprisingly here is the level of humor throughout. Never quite laugh-out-loud hilarious, but there’s plenty of jokes and running gags to keep you smiling.
Also director Johnson isn’t just offering up a tale of murder for fun, as amid the car chases, shady shenanigans, and family feuds, there lies a ferocious political message regarding immigration. While not steering too far away from what it’s meant to be, a modernized tribute to the whodunits of yesteryear, he also nestles in an enjoyable amount of cheeky references to Trump, the Hamilton musical, Murder She Wrote, and even the award-winning Baby Driver.
Nevertheless, with its large ensemble cast, it was inevitable that a few characters would end up being underdeveloped or just don’t get the screen time they deserve. However, this shortcoming is inevitably overshadowed by Johnson’s sharp and crowd-pleasing screenplay.
As one would expect, the very recognizable cast is stupendously incredible. It is great to see Ana de Armas in the leading role, and she gets ample opportunity to showcase a range of emotions throughout the film. Not once did her insane attractiveness come up or be exemplified over her role in the story. Daniel Craig and Chris Evans seems to be having a lot of fun with this film, with Craig putting on an over-the-top southern drawl, while Evans as a slimy thinker, in stark contrast to his Captain America persona.
Toni Collette is another stand-out as a privileged fashion/health guru, as is Christopher Plummer as the unfortunate Harlan Thrombey. Jaime Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson also get to shine in some fantastic sequences. In supporting roles, Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan and Edie Patterson are also apt. Unfortunately, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell and Riki Lindhome are wasted. On the whole, ‘Knives Out’ is a wickedly clever, perfectly twisted, wildly fun, and fearless whodunit film that will never fail to entertain.
Directed – Rian Johnson
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 130 minutes