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Knives Out (2019)

DIRECTOR: Rian Johnson

CAST: Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Lakeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer

REVIEW:

With Knives Out, writer-director Rian Johnson has wholly redeemed himself for his disappointing Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Johnson and Star Wars were not a good fit, but he has returned here from playing in another’s sandbox to writing and directing his own material where he has been consistently intriguing (I’m a big fan of his 2012 time travel thriller Looper, for example) and churned out something we don’t see often, an original murder mystery of the type that Agatha Christie might have written (plus some modern sensibilities). Boasting a star-studded ensemble cast obviously enjoying itself, a slickly “keep you guessing” screenplay, and a quirky sense of humor, Knives Out is a deliciously twisty-turny and hugely entertaining morsel for anyone who appreciates a good whodunit. Johnson and his cast obviously relished making this movie, and they’ve given us something to relish eating up in turn.

On the night of his 85th birthday, prolific (and very wealthy) murder mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) invites his large dysfunctional family to his remote mansion. In the morning, Harlan is found dead, seemingly from slitting his own throat. Local detective Lt. Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) is ready to dismiss it as an open-and-shut case of suicide, but enigmatic private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) isn’t so sure. Blanc suspects foul play, and the list of suspects—the deceased’s family—is long. There’s Harlan’s daughter, real estate mogul Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson), and their spoiled playboy son Ransom (Chris Evans), as well as Harlan’s son and the family publishing company CEO Walt (Michael Shannon) and his teenage phone-addicted internet troll son Jacob (Jaeden Martell). And in addition to the children and grandchildren, there’s vapid lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Collette), wife of Harlan’s deceased son, her social activist daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), and Harlan’s devoted caretaker Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the last of whom Blanc appoints as the Watson to his Sherlock, trusting her for one very simple reason….she’s physically incapable of telling a lie without vomiting from nerves. As Blanc notes, “this is a tangled web….and we are not done unraveling it”.

Like any good whodunit, Knives Out efficiently sets up the crime, assembles a rogues gallery of suspects, and busily starts setting up red herrings that make almost everyone look suspicious. As Blanc conducts his investigation, we learn the large dysfunctional family’s dirty laundry and peel back the ways in which various family members might not have been totally forthcoming in their one-by-one interviews with Blanc. Like the best whodunits, it’s established that any number of characters had possible motives, and there are also side mysteries going on, like who sent the envelope stuffed with cash that summoned Blanc to investigate in the first place? Johnson’s script does a good job being twisty-turny and complex enough to keep us speculating without going overboard into being so convoluted and labyrinthine that we get completely lost (and for those who get a little hazy about anything, Daniel Craig gets his big Sherlock/Columbo monologue at the end where he lays it all out). Johnson shows us the real versions of events behind each suspect’s statements, and fairly early on the movie flashes back to show us what happened on that fateful night. By doing so, the movie accomplishes two things: it makes us privy to information Blanc is not, making us part of the game, and it also engages on more levels than just a “whodunit”, by letting us watch a character in question navigate the tricky minefield they’re trapped in and wonder how and if they’re going to make it out of this. At the same time, this being a twisty-turny whodunit, it shouldn’t surprise savvy viewers when a “big reveal” that comes so early in the movie isn’t the whole story. Those who think all has been revealed after this key flashback scene haven’t seen everything yet.

While Johnson delights in giving his best rendition of the kind of murder mystery Agatha Christie might have written, Knives Out is not a stuffy, oh-so-serious potboiler. On the contrary, it’s practically a black comedy, with plenty of offbeat humor that’s often wryly amusing and occasionally hilarious without going so far that there isn’t also the occasional tense and/or poignant moment. Nor does Johnson shy away from social/political commentary—the Thrombeys all profess their love for Marta, though it becomes a recurring running joke how none of them can keep straight which South American country she’s from, at one point they directly argue over the Trump administration’s immigration policies, and one gets the feeling it’s no coincidence that in a movie chock-full of obnoxious rich white people, the immigrant caretaker with an undocumented mother ends up being the most sympathetic character onscreen (by the way, in the form of Toni Collette’s airhead lifestyle guru Joni and her website “Flam”, am I the only one wondering if the filmmakers were making fun of Gwyneth Paltrow and “Goop”?).

Knives Out sports one of the most star-studded ensembles of any movie this year—it’d be worth a look just for the cast alone—and everyone seems to be having fun (although, with an ensemble this big, it’s inevitable some of them get more to do than others). Daniel Craig, taking a break from 007, creates a delightfully oddball character as Benoit Blanc, an obvious pseudo-Hercule Poirot type (right down to an almost unpronounceable name) who sports a hammy Southern drawl laid on extra thick (one character compares his accent to Foghorn Leghorn), drops folksy nuggets of wisdom (and a doughnut analogy that gets more convoluted the more he tries to expand on it), and like Sherlock Holmes smokes a pipe and says things like “the game’s afoot”. Blanc isn’t always the most observant of “brilliant” detectives (there’s a running gag where he doesn’t notice a piece of evidence until a dog literally puts it in his hand), but he gets a big climactic monologue where he puts it all together. Chris Evans, released from the confines of strait-laced do-gooder Captain America, doesn’t show up for a while, but when he does he quickly sets about stealing scenes and gleefully playing against type as a snarky asshole whom Steve Rogers would not approve of. The rest—Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson—provide a colorful supporting rogues gallery, with only IT‘s Jaeden Martell feeling conspicuously underused (he gets nothing to do besides say a couple of lines and play on his phone). Ultimately, however, the real standout and in many ways the real main character is Ana de Armas’ Marta, trapped by circumstances and a weak stomach that leaves her haplessly unable to lie to anyone. De Armas makes Marta compulsively sympathetic, especially when she becomes a victim of circumstances mired in a seemingly impossible situation. Blanc might be the one cracking the case (or trying to), but if we’re really rooting on a human level for any character, it’s Marta. In smaller roles, Johnson regular Noah Segan has a supporting role as one of the cops, and there’s bit parts from M. Emmett Walsh and Frank Oz. Last but not least is Christopher Plummer, still going strong at eighty-nine years old, who’s dead at the start but still gets a decent amount of screentime via flashbacks and a poignant moment with de Armas. And listen carefully to the voice of the unseen actor in an amusingly overdramatic murder mystery a character is watching on their laptop early on; if it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Fans of whodunit murder mysteries (which are few and far between, with even fewer ones as good as this) are likely to savor every minute of what Johnson and his cast and crew have wrought here. Johnson’s skill for plotting is matched only by his knack for snappy dialogue, and he delights in weaving between black comedy, murder mystery, and thriller smoothly and with panache. It’s a slickly-crafted slice of exceptionally diverting entertainment and one of the most delicious movie experiences of the year.

* * * 1/2

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