Knives Out is the most fun I’ve had at the movies all year. A whodunnit which isn’t really a whodunnit, so much as a love letter to the archetypes and tropes of the genre. A salute wrapped around a rage at the one percent class mixed with a wry sense of humor about most things. In short, it’s a delightful way to wile away the time.
Rian Johnson is a clear fan of murder mysteries, in particular, the cozy mystery sub-genre. For the uninitiated cozy murder mysteries are stories that take place anywhere but always with a cast of characters and the most outlandish one being the detective who solves whatever mystery before him. He ties the case into a perfect bow for the local police department. Think Miss Marple, Lieutenant Columbo, Monk, or Jessica Fletcher.
Johnson takes a cue from Columbo in as much as the murderer is revealed in the first thirty minutes of the two and half hour run time. For some, this may be off-putting. Which is fair they were never going to enjoy this film anyway. They are the sad types who think the worth of murder mysteries must come from the cleverness of the mystery itself and not from the characters with whom we spend so much time with.
If I’m being honest Knives Out probably isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, mystery wise. But it is one hundred percent as delightful and amusing as it thinks it is- so it more than breaks even. Johnson trots out his cast of characters with hedonistic glee. The story alone is as old as dime-store novels.
Johnson’s script is full to bursting with familiar characters we expect to find in a family of a well known and absurdly rich mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). From his independent loyal daughter and successful entrepreneur, Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) to her philandering smarmy Trump supporter husband Richard (Don Johnson). It’s as if you could sit in the audience filling up a bingo card; you could hit bingo before the halfway point in the first act.
But that’s the point. Johnson isn’t as interested in the mystery itself as much as his characters plotting and conniving to stab each other in the back. He cares less about the plot and more about the nursemaid with the pure moral compass, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). Marta was Harlan’s confidante and sounding board. Refreshingly though de Armas is objectively gorgeous Johnson steers away from the trope that she and Harlan were anything other than friends; though the family drags out this cliche when their inheritance is threatened.
Marta suffers from a condition in which if she tells a lie she vomits. A convenient trait for a character to have in a murder mystery, but maybe no so convenient given the circumstances. The detective investigating the case, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) conscripts her to be his Watson. Craig’s Blanc speaks in an exaggerated Southern drawl. One character even calls him “a phony Foghorn Leghorn”. Some might be bothered by Craig’s accent but I merely considered it sweet revenge for all the times’ American actors have attempted a “British” accent.
Knives Out is one of those movies where the director has cast as many names and character actors as possible. M. Emmet Walsh shows up for a time as the security guard of the Thrombey estate. I couldn’t help the smile which spread across my face when I heard his singular and recognizable drawl. Many will know him as a detective from the Coen Brothers’ first movie Blood Simple. I know him from a childhood favorite of mine Harry and the Hendersons. Regardless, his presence in any film almost always brings a giggle of delight.
I haven’t talked much about what happens in the film because to be honest it really doesn’t matter. It’s the characters that are the main attraction. The vultures swarming the estate in preparation for the reading of the will by Alan, the long-suffering family lawyer played by the legendary Frank Oz.
De Armas is tasked with carrying a movie with a staggering legendary and talented cast. She carries the film and our sympathies with sublime effortlessness. As each family member praises her work ethic and loyalty they almost immediately cite that she is an immigrant, but “a good one”. At one point Richard is seen arguing with Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) about Trump and his politics; especially in regards to the humanitarian crisis at the border. Marta who is nearby is called over and is put on a pedestal by Richard because “she came in the right way.”
Johnson’s script isn’t subtle which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Subtlety isn’t a marker of quality so much an aspect of a style. I’ve seen many great movies which are not subtle and many bad ones which are. Though the cast of characters is a sea of endless selfish, entitled, jerkweeds, they can all agree on one thing: Jacob (Jaeden Martell), the youngest member of the Thrombeys is a Nazi and that ain’t right.
Jacob’s father Walt (Michael Shannon) seems baffled by the animosity towards his son. “He’s an alt-right troll” Joni screams at him. “I have no idea what any of those words mean,” he replies. His wife Donna, played by the infuriating underrated Rikki Lindholme seems to exist in a strange limbo between functionally sober and blasted out of her gourd.
Benoit Blanc must serpentine his way through this pit of vipers with Marta, the human lie detector, at his side. Knives Out is one of those films like Dolemite Is My Name; the joy comes from the sheer existence of the film. The late great director Robert Altman is said to have called actors he wanted to be in his films and ask them to “Come play with us.”
It’s that sense of fun which courses through the veins of Knives Out. Even Chris Evans as the jerkiest jerk of them all, Harlan’s grandson Ransom, plays against his Captain America image. Playing on his natural charm he dares us to love him as he does and says repugnant and awful things.
Johnson’s dialogue is a sumptuous buffet for the ears. Craig’s performance alone as he draws out his vowels during one of his rambling speeches is worth the price of admission alone. “You’re not a very good detective,” one character says. “That’s okay, you’re not a very good murderer, so I guess we deserve each other.”
Steve Yedlin’s camera can barely contain its excitement as it relishes the cacophony of movie star and character actor faces. With Bob Ducsay’s help, the editor, they make Knives Out a gorgeous, impeccably constructed, and a funhouse of mirrors and homages. One scene even has Marta returning home to her mother watching an episode of Murder She Wrote dubbed in Spanish.
Yedlin and Ducsay keep the rhythm of Knives Out moving along at full speed long after the mystery has been solved. The denouement is a tour de force of camera work, editing, and gonzo playing to the rafters acting which if done wrong could be unbearable. But Johnson never loses his grip and the result is a joyous symphony of dialogue and zany character work. Atop of all of that Johnson and his team have given us one of the perfect last shots of the year; a mixture of poetry and cinematic symmetry
Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Seger have the thankless but important roles of being the doubters and inquisitors of Benoit Blanc’s outrageous deductions and claims. But Standfield’s Lieutenant Elliot isn’t a fool and while Seger’s Trooper Wagner is more Thrombey fanboy than objective observer his deep knowledge of the estate is crucial to Benoit’s deductions.
So go off with your “It’s not logical,” “I already figured it out by such and such a time,” or “I don’t understand why they didn’t just use blah blah.” The reason is simple. Because it’s not important. Police procedurals have poisoned the minds of the movie-going audience causing us to merely sit back like Olympian Gods and thinking, “Well they should just run the fingerprints or get a toxicology report.” All well and good and while that would certainly solve the case it also wouldn’t be any damned fun.